Presidents Don’t Set Budgets; Congresses Do
We need to remember who actually sets the budget and, further, who is ultimtately responsible for the behavior of politicians.
Every year we seem to go through the same ritual: talking about the president’s budget plan like it actually was the foundational document for understanding the coming debate on the federal budget when, in fact, as an actual plan it is usually DOA upon arrival in Congress. The actual process of writing the budget for FY2012 will undertaken in the committees of Congress and may, or may not, reflect the priorities provided by the White House.
Not only is the process in the hands of Congress and not the President, it ends up being a complex process of authorization and appropriations. Further, any number of issues may not be part of the budget (various emergency spending, such as real emergencies like Hurricane Katrina or items we simply leave off budget for political reasons, such as a great deal of spending linked to Afghanistan and Iraq). There is also the real possibility that in any given year a budget will not be passed, but rather the continuation of the previous year’s budget will remain in place (as is the case this year, as there never was a FY2011 budget passed—indeed, the current continuing resolution runs out on March 4, which requires a new resolution to keep the government open). While such outcome is unlikely this year, it underscores that last year’s discussion of Obama’s FY2011 budget proposal ended up being a moot exercise.
Speaking of that exercise, we go through it every year and it always seems to me that the discussions always miss the fundamental fact that the president’s annual budget plan is naught but a suggestion and, moreover (and to repeat myself) one that is likely to be set aside by Congress (followed some, maybe, but never in toto). Now, it is true that these plans can help to set the agenda and they generate useful public discussion (more because, in my opinion, because it makes us talk about budget basics than the specific proposals of a given administration). However, it might be a bit more helpful that when the Very Serious People discuss these proposals that they make a bit clearer the fact that whatever we are going to get later this year is going to be a creation of the legislature.
An interesting fact here is that the Constitution does not foresee the executive as having a role in the budget process until after the legislature has done its work (i.e., via either signing or vetoing the legislation). The origin of the current process is the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which requires the president to submit an annual budget plan. I think it is further interesting to note that that Act combined with the increasing significance of the State of the Union address (which ends up being, in part, a recitation of budget priorities) in the media age has helped to shift public attention to the president on these area of public policy which despite all the attention paid is still a constitutional function of the Congress.
At a minimum, it would be nice if people would talk about this for what it is: the start of the conversation, not the end of it.
All of the reasons noted above always makes me find strident criticisms (for example here and others here—but really, all over the web, in print and over the air yesterday) of a given year’s budget plan to be, at a minimum, a bit misplaced as it assumes that the president’s budget proposal has a lot more influence on outcomes than it likely will. The real driver, by the way, of the budget is that most of it is already set (e.g., entitlements and interest on the debt).
I also think that much of the criticism of Obama specifically is unfair, at least from a practical point of view. The problem is not the lack of leadership from the White House as much as it is the prevailing politics of the moment. While I do not think one can be considered serious about the deficit and debt unless one is willing to address the issues of entitlements, defense spending and the issue of raising additional revenues (i.e., raising taxes), I am also aware that the public doesn’t want to hear that (as James Joyner noted the other day).
If one considers that perhaps the most popular piece of legislation in the last two years was the bipartisan compromise in the lame duck session that extended the Bush tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits that may be all one needs to know about the politics of the deficit. The vast majority of the American public wants a diet of giant cake that they can eat too and that, further, will have no detrimental effects on their long-term health (but, they want to complains about the fact they are getting fat and yet have no energy).
To talk pure politics for a moment: if the Obama administration had come out with a serious budget proposal that did things like cut entitlements and defense and that, further, raised taxes (the kinds of things that have to be done to deal with the current fiscal trends), does anyone think that it would have been greeted positively? Again: this is not to defend the Obama administration, but rather to try to get us to think about where the real problems we face are.
As much as I would like to blame politicians, the bottom line remains this: the reason that the Obama administration (and ultimately, I predict, the Congress) is unwilling to make serious attempts at dealing with the fiscal challenges facing the United States is because we, the people, would punish them all at the ballot box if they did. We don’t want our entitlements cut, we don’t want to cut defense spending, and we don’t want to raise taxes (some “we’s” want some of these things and some “we’s” want others, but there is no critical convergence of interest that will allow any of these to happen at the moment—and really, they all need to undertaken to one degree or another).
Voters needs to stop falling for assertions like cutting “waste” or foreign aid will solve these problems. See here, for example. Until the public (and, really, most pundits/analysts/politicians) really takes all of this seriously, all this is just so much shouting in the wind.