Federal budget nothing more than a game of make-believeThe annual budget of the United States used to be a big deal, back before whichever party wasn’t in the White House took to announcing the document “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill, usually without having even seen it.
By: Dale McFeatters, The Dickinson Press
The annual budget of the United States used to be a big deal, back before whichever party wasn’t in the White House took to announcing the document “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill, usually without having even seen it.
In those days — which now seem quaint to Washington old-timers — the budget was a closely guarded secret right up until its release mid-morning on a February Monday.
The previous weekend, individual federal agencies held press briefings on their portion of the funding. Reporters were enjoined to secrecy — “not to break the embargo,” as the phrase went — and agencies, in turn, pledged not to leak the contents to favored members of the press.
Surprisingly, for years both sides kept up the bargain, and at the magic hour on Monday newspapers and TV would burst forth with detailed, numbers-packed stories that had been written in advance.
The actual, physical budget was simultaneously made available at the Government Printing Office by members of the White House budget office, giddy with relief at the conclusion of months of tedious work, who would pass out cookies and pastries and sometimes dress in costume for the occasion.
There was then the problem of finding a cab back to the office, in competition with dozens of other reporters, because the budget was no small document. It still isn’t. And each Washington news bureau is no longer entitled to one free set.
The budget still comes in four volumes — this year, fiscal 2013, a handsome royal blue.
There is the actual budget, known as the “basic budget,” 255 pages for $39. Then there is the Appendix, 1,476 pages for $76. And then there is my favorite — because you can look up how far off all the previous budgets were — the Historical Tables, 358 pages for $50. And, finally, Analytical Perspectives, also 358 pages, for $53. And if you crave even more numbers, Perspectives comes with a CD-ROM. Oh, yes, there’s a mobile app for all this.
That’s the president’s budget. But Congress insists on coming up with its own budget, or would if it could ever agree on one. Until it does, the budgets put forward by the two parties are only resolutions. They don’t have the force of law.
Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget resolution since April 29, 2009, and probably won’t pass one this year. House Republicans passed one last year. The Senate ignored it. Republicans have another one ready to go, but they’re having trouble getting the many wings of the GOP to agree on it.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., says, rather tentatively, that he thinks he has the votes to pass it. One would hope so, but you can’t count on anything.
In his budget, the president must specify how every penny will be raised and spent. Not so the congressional budget committees.
Ryan, for example, promises great savings through tax reform, but he cannily doesn’t specify the reforms. And for good reason: The reforms involve abolishing tax breaks extremely popular with voters — the child care tax credit and deductions for charitable contributions, mortgage interest and employer subsidies for health insurance. Taxpayers will be very angry when they hear about this.
However, to put this in some sort of perspective: The total federal budget for next fiscal year as proposed by President Barack Obama is $3.8 trillion. About 60 percent of this is on automatic pilot — such as Social Security and Medicare — and outside Congress’ direct control.
Legislators can wrangle about the other 40 percent — defense, health, education, law enforcement, highways, etc. — but eventually they’ll buckle down and approve it.
So what are they fighting about? The difference between the $1.047 trillion the two parties agreed on last summer and the $1.028 trillion the Republicans now want, having gotten cold feet about the larger number.
As they say on certain TV shows: “Don’t you kids try this at home. These are trained professionals.”
McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service.