Filed Under:

In Drafting A Presidential Budget, Cost May Outweigh Benefit

Play associated audio

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit


Remembering Robert Swanson, Advertising's 'King Of Jingles'

Robert Swanson revolutionized American advertising and wrote some of the most memorable ad jingles of the 1950s and '60s for products ranging from Campbell's Soup to Pall Mall cigarettes. He died at 95 July 17 at his home in Phoenix, Ariz.

More Than Just Saying 'Cheese,' Hundreds Sit Test To Become Official Experts

The American Cheese Society will begin proctoring its next Certified Cheese Professional Exam in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, during the group's annual conference.
WAMU 88.5

Democratic National Convention Day Two: Uniting The Party

An update on day two of the Democratic convention: Bill Clinton takes the stage and ongoing efforts by party leaders to build unity.

WAMU 88.5

How To Help Teens And Children Fight 'Tech Addiction'

Many parents and therapists say obsessive internet use is a very real problem for some teens and children. But the term “internet addiction” is controversial and not officially recognized as a disorder. How to help kids who compulsively use computers and mobile technology.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.