Does the President's Budget Matter?


Robert Samuelson took at look at the administration's proposed budget and came away terribly worried about the country's fiscal future. He's right to be. But there's also something to be said for Bruce Bartlett's argument that the importance of the president's budget is overstated.

Bartlett provides a miniature history of the country's budgeting process and argues that, due to a series of power struggles in the 1970s that resulted in the creation of the Congressional Budget Office, Congress arguably exerts more control over the budget than the White House. (In part, that's because the CBO competes with the administration's Office of Management and Budget, and the competition between the two serves as a check on dishonest budgeting. It doesn't keep budgets totally clean, however: Witness the way OMB has exaggerated the severity of the deficit problem that the Obama administration inherited in order to pave the way for claiming that Obama's deficit reduction efforts are especially heroic.) Now, writes Bartlett, "the president's budget has been greatly diminished in importance. Whereas it was once the necessary starting point for all budget discussion, since that was the only place the numbers even existed, now it is just one proposal among many."


Bartlett's ultimate point, however, is that neither Congress nor the White House exert as much control over the budget as our entitlements:

But the big fact about the federal budget is that more and more of it is effectively on automatic pilot; neither Congress nor the president have anything so say about it. If you take all the earmarks, unnecessary weapons systems, waste, fraud and abuse and everything else you can think of that deserves to be cut, it still adds up to drops in the ocean compared to Social Security and Medicare. As long as those programs are off limits the president's budget will continue to decline as a matter of political and economic importance.

In other words, if Social Security and Medicare took the "Which X-Men Character Are You?" quiz, they'd always end up as The Juggernaut.

This is what's so infuriating about the GOP's ongoing opportunistic defenses of any and all Medicare spending. And it's what's worrying about the Democrats' recent attempts to flip the Republican Party's save-Medicare rhetoric back at the GOP.

I wrote about how the CBO and its place in Washington policy debates here. Veronique de Rugy looked at the president's budget assumptions here.