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In Drafting A Presidential Budget, Cost May Outweigh Benefit

Presidents have been submitting budgets since the 1920s, but now that lawmakers have the Congressional Budget Office, is the exercise worth it?
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Presidents have been submitting budgets since the 1920s, but now that lawmakers have the Congressional Budget Office, is the exercise worth it?

On Tuesday, President Obama will unveil his budget proposal for the coming year. But for all the sound and fury surrounding the president's spending plan, it's likely to have very little significance. Congress routinely ignores the president's budget. And lawmakers have already settled on overall spending levels for the coming year.

That's led some to ask whether it's time to bring the curtain down on this annual exercise in political theater.

Members of Congress act as if they're eager to see the president's budget, and impatient when it's overdue. Of last year's holdup on the spending plan, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said:

"The president has been late in submitting his budget outline nearly every year. He's already missed this year's deadline by more than a month. Look, the American people are tired of the delays and the excuses. It's time for the president to get his budget plan over to us."

Once upon a time, the president's budget really was the starting point for making spending decisions in Washington. The budget spells out how much money the government expects to collect in the coming year, and suggests how it should be divvied up among various agencies and programs.

Longtime budget observer Stan Collender, from the communications firm Qorvis, says lawmakers used to need those numbers from the White House to know where to begin.

"It set the agenda," he says, "and Congress, which didn't have much ability to review the budget as a whole, basically was forced to accept most of what the president wanted without question."

But that changed in the 1970s. After a spending battle with President Nixon, lawmakers set up their own number-crunching shop — the Congressional Budget Office — as well as their own budget committees. Jim Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, says that's when the president's budget began its long slide from vital financial blueprint to door stop.

"Once they had the [Congressional Budget Office], Congress had an independent way of judging not only what was being proposed to be spent, but also projections of 10 to 15 years out about the real cost of things," Thurber says.

In the tug of war over the nation's purse strings, that marked a big step in Congress' direction.

The printed version of the president's budget still comes embossed with a proud eagle on its cover. But these days, the document is more of a clay pigeon. Toss it up in the air, Collender says, and wait for lawmakers to start shooting.

"Congress is free to criticize what the president's proposed, and with 535 members in the House and Senate, there's somebody who's going to criticize everything the president proposes," he says. "So it becomes a political liability, rather than a political plus."

Thurber agrees it's a lot of political pain for not much gain, especially since most federal spending — for programs like Social Security and Medicare — now happens automatically, with no annual decision-making required. That's especially true this year, when spending caps have already been agreed upon, and Obama is proposing only modest adjustments.

"The budget frequently is dead on arrival on the Hill from the president. This year it will be even more dead on arrival, in my opinion," Thurber says.

So, Collender suggests, why not skip the president's budget altogether?

"You've got to keep in mind that the requirement that the president submit a budget was only put in place in 1921," he says. "For the first 100-plus years of the republic, there was no presidential budget, there was no congressional budget, and we did just fine."

The congressional committees in charge of spending money have shown they're perfectly capable of doing so without a master budget.

Still, there is some value in the budget as a political document that distills priorities into dollars and cents. Vice President Biden often sums it up this way: "Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I will tell you what you value."

Collender says what makes budgeting such a challenge is there are never enough dollars and cents to go around. "Trust me, when there are surpluses for everyone to vote on, the president will be rushing to submit a budget. And Congress will be rushing to pass it," he says.

Until then, don't hold your breath.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.