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.

NEXT: Health Care Is Expensive, So Stop Raising Health Insurance Rates!

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  1. What about defense spending? Cut it to pieces and the economy would naturally and dramatically improve.

  2. If we are going to talk about entitlements, we should include defense spending.

    1. So the Chinese can invade us like they did to North Korea? No thanks.

      1. Logic?

        If we outspend the rest of the world on defense, how is dramatically cutting back on our bloated military outlays lead to Chinese invasion?

        Looks like you are falling for the same old totalitarian clap trap.

        1. They are just waiting for an opportunity. You just keep going with your smug pacifism and see where it gets us. You already have Obama now you want Maobama.

          1. Nobody has ever accused me of "smug pacifism." I take pride in my libertarian truculence.

            1. Enough of your musical "taste". Death Metal does not excuse suicide pacts with the future.

            2. tru?cu?lence (truhk'kyoo-lens)
              n. A specially equipped truck used to transport the sick or injured.

              [Georgian, from monster, mobile; see "to move aside" in Indo-European roots.]

          2. Come now Suki, everyone knows the Chinese are very nice people. Just like those USSR folks were very nice people who wouldn't hurt a flea, if only the US would have stopped building all those damned weapons.

            In fact if we would only just all collectively remember it, the whole world is a really nice place and it's only us Americans that have an attitude problem.

            Besides, it's just so much easier to attack defense spending than it is Medicare and Social Security.

      2. Lol at the notion that China is going to invade us anytime soon

        1. China doesn't need to invade us - they're just buying us one piece at a time.

          1. Well, it'll be a grim day for the repo man when they attempt to take possession.

          2. Buyer wanted for home in good condition. Preferably, buyer will pay cash and assume mortgage liability, but seller will accept a bowl of rice and some rat meat as barter.

      3. Yeah they're just about to march across the Pacific ocean aren't they? Or are they building tunnels?

        1. Tunnels, Comrade Zero... Definitely tunnels...


        2. Conveniently leaving out their your Canadian allies in your argument is not helping your case, Comrade.

        3. Shipping containers.

          At 500@, 20K containers means Wal-mart's gonna have 1 million screaming Chinese on their hands one of these days...

          1. Good catch. All going right into Canada and staging in Saskatchewan.

        4. Well let's see, the Chinese outnumber us by what, four to one? And I seem to recall hearing something about -- was it China? -- that had suddenly started getting the hang of this thing called manufacturing.

          Wait until they figure out Uncle Sam isn't exactly going to paying back all those loans.

          But I'm sure they've got enough libertarian principles that they'll understand, they're way better off trading with us than just kicking our asses.

    2. I have no problem with trimming defense spending. Not gutting it, but trimming it. End the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will save lots of billions.

      But, entitlement spending is the 800-pound gorilla.

      Not to lend to much support to President Bush, but he did tackle Social Security reform, and was shot down.

      Libertarians need to push hard to support those daring politicians who actually want to trim social security and medicare, who will invariably be demogogued by the left and its allies (e.g., AARP).

      1. If we live to see the day that defense spending has become the 800 lb gorilla, then I'll talk about attacking it. Until then the actual gorilla needs to remain the primary target.

        1. the actual gorilla needs to remain the primary target.

          That's racist cracker jack,take it back!

  3. The President's budget isn't made of matter. It's made of energy. Pure, Green energy.

    1. Just you wait, he'll use it to zap all those terrorists and chinks. Pure green environmentally friendly biodegradable non-racist lightening bolts will fly from his very finger tips.

      I heard there's a DARPA program going on this. All presidents of the future shall be so empowered.

  4. About that Chinese threat: I read a pretty good piece today on the immense gulf that still remains between us and the various Asian powers, even today. That's an economic and military gulf.

    1. Boston Globe? They want us to surrender to Ireland!

      1. That's a fair cop.

      2. NEVER!!!

        1. Then don't let DoD get disarmed by the pacifists.

    2. The US still has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world 5 times over. Granted, that's down from 20 times due to all those peace-loving hippies, but it's still enough to keep away any large-scale invasion. The Chinese might be able to nuke L.A. or Seattle (good riddance) but their nuclear capability s nothing to worry about.

      1. The US still has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world 5 times over.

        Oh, knock it off with the scare tactics of the 1980s and earlier. Humans still do not posess the capability of destroying humanity, much less the whole fucking world, and never did.

      2. Getting ourselves in a situation where the only way we have to retaliate is nukes, is something you might want to worry about.

    3. There are plenty of money quotes in that piece. Here' a good one:

      ... Asia's powers, from China to Malaysia to Singapore, are taking the final step from rising power to global hegemon - using state-directed economic policies to dominate industry after industry, while delivering ... good governance, growth, and the rule of law, without the messiness of Western liberal democracy.

      Some people, it seems, will never let the dream go.

      Here's another good one:

      Also, despite predictions that Asia will eventually integrate, building a European Union-like organization ...

      What half-lobe has been saying this????

      And somehow somebody slipped this past the Globe's censors:

      People in many Asian nations have extremely negative views of their neighbors - even though they maintain positive images of the United States.

      No wait, I forgot that Obama has made the World love us.

      There's actually quite a bit of positive stuff about the US in there. Maybe Brown's election really did shake things up in MA.

  5. The only presidential power wrt the budget is in Article 2, Section 3:

    recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient

    Constitutionally, all the power rests with congress. And only the House can originate a bill for raising revenue.

    1. True all. However, it took a Supreme Court case or two in the 1970s, with a concept that I still do not understand, followed by some new public law to "restore" this and more in the hands of the Congress.

      Several presidents took the money appropriated by Congress and spent it however they liked, or didn't even spend it. When it went to court the Congress was told they had not exercised the spending part of their power enough that they had to pass new law to get it back. I still don't get that, but that is how it was explained to me. Laws were passed in the 1970s to make sure the president spent as told.

      it still adds up to drops in the ocean compared to Social Security and Medicare

      The Congress controls that too. It is not out of their hands.

  6. "Congress arguably exerts more control over the budget than the White House."

    Oh, well, in that case...

  7. hardly anyone has posed these crucial questions: what should the federal government do and why; and who should pay? We ought to go back to first principles of defining a desirable role for government and abandon the expedient of assuming that anyone receiving a federal benefit is morally entitled to it simply because it's been received before.

    We need to do something even more basic, and more difficult: set a hard limit on the portion of GDP we are willing to allow the government to consume. We need to establish a finite government "income", and then let the various parts duke it out over who gets what.

    (I crack myself up.)

    1. An allowance, if you will.

      1. Of course! How simple. Sharpening my quill pen now to write it up. Wording suggestions anybody?

        1. Ten billion a week, but only if you behave. No credit cards, and you can only take the car out if you're home before midnight.

          1. Okay, but that has to go into paragraph two. I am trying to work up a catchy preamble right now.

            Four score

            Hey you, get off my cloud

            In the course of human events

            When I was driving down the Pacific Coast highway

            It just isn't flowing. I might need to take a snooze and work it in the morning.

            1. "Listen up, Maggots!"

              1. Catchy, but still not origional.

                1. "Against stupidity the very gods
                  Themselves contend in vain."

                  1. Who did you get that from? SugarFree or someone else?

                    Look people, this is an origonal document! No Bidening in this one, okay?

                    1. It's SchillerFree, and I put in quotes. It's from The Maid of Orleans.

                    2. shakes fist at PL

                      Marketing, think marketing . . .

                      In the People's struggle for true freedom . . .

                      There we go. We have to get those commie bastards to buy off on this too you know.

                    3. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

                    4. I told you we can't recycle the words of others! It has to be fresh and snappy, like a green bean.

            2. Plastic? Plastic? You can't handle the Plastic!

        2. For every dollar that Congress borrows after the date of this amendment, we shall hang one Member of Congress.

    2. Hey, that's what I said last week. Only I proposed that we construct a new Arena for the various parts to duke it out in.

  8. I'm the Juggernaut b*tch!

    1. I got your "juggernauts" - RIGHT HERE!!!

  9. Any Juggernaut reference should automatically be followed by this video:

  10. Credit cards? No way; strictly COD.

  11. Does the President's Budget Matter?

    It is conceivable that a large discontinuity in the space-time continuum might occur in the Washington, DC area and we might need a giant piece of useless mass to throw in to pull the edge of the discontinuity closed by gravitational force. In that case, the President's budget might matter.

    Otherwise, no.

    1. God is dumping about 69" more inches of that on us tomorrow. I don't think it will help.

  12. I visit the Reason site every day because I can count on far more intelligent posts here and the humor is far superior to my local rag's site.
    However, the comments today about China invading us are right out of cold war comic books. How are they going to get enough troops here to make a dent, by Air China and United? Why would they want to come here? I sometimes hear people say, "They want what we have!" They already have televisions, computers, automobiles, traffic, political corruption, new houses, and good food. What do they want from us, crime, race problems, more crooked politicians, greasy hamburgers, no available parking spaces, and a whiny public?
    They want us to buy their products but are even getting restive about that seeing that they are sending us televisions and computers in exchange for worthless paper dollars, and borrowed worthless paper at that.
    If you want threats to world peace we may want to look closer to home. When things really turn to shit here politicians (ours among others) are perfectly willing to sponsor distracting wars and designate evil enemies to take the public mind off internal problems. By the way, who has the most troops on foreign territory, the U.S. or China?

    1. I find your arguments Laoshi and poorly presented.

      1. Bah! I should have written, "I find your arumentsh Laoshi and poorly preshented."

        Where's my time machine?

      2. I dunno, I thunk I expalained it purtty gud.

      3. Sorry, I get it now. However, Laoshi is not pronounced "Lao she". It is said as though there is an "r" at the end. More like "Lao shir".

        1. Sorta like the way people from Boston say "idea"?

          1. Or the guy from Alabama who was stopped by the highway patrol and asked if he had any I.D. He asked the patrolman, "Bout what?"

        2. Lao shir. Is that anywhere near where the hobbits live?

    2. It isn't necessarily about China invading the US main land. But China could nonetheless interfere with our global trade routes. As the world becomes increasingly inter-connected, that becomes more and more of a real concern.

      How many countries does it take today, to make one automobile? Hint: it's a lot more than one.

      China has developed the manufacturing capacity that they could, without stretching the imagination, put a really big navy out there, in fairly short order if they were determined to do so. If they messed with a few shipping lanes it could do major damage to the US economy. Which in turn would do major damage to our ability to defend ourselves.

      Note that a low-tech Chinese navy, consisting of four to five times more ships than the US has, could do the job quite nicely. In WWII the Germans had decidedly better technology than we did -- but we won because we just overwhelmed them with numbers. The Chinese could easily do the same to us.

      We flatter ourselves entirely too much, with our trust in all our high tech stuff. Our technology would only keep us on top during the very earliest stages of any real war with China (should one develop). I predict we'd find them near-impossible to defeat.

      Sad truth is that when it comes to defense issues, the stock and trade libertarians have no capacity to imagine what are very real possibilities. If the Soviets had been able, via a base in Cuba, to shut down US shipping in and out of the Mississippi basin, it would have put a major hurt on the US economy. The US getting pissed about a Russian base in Cuba was not for nothing.

      Personally, I advocate the development of a serious kick ass navy and air force. But then I also advocate staying out of ground wars in Asia, which proves that I'm probably a lunatic.

      A nice big navy and air force can be used to insure nobody wants to mess with your trade routes. Army and Marine divisions are more useful for insuring that nobody wants to invade your home land.

      btw, if you're wondering why the Chinese might want to mess with us, you said it yourself.

      They want us to buy their products but are even getting restive about that seeing that they are sending us televisions and computers in exchange for worthless paper dollars, and borrowed worthless paper at that.

      If they found out that we really weren't going to pay up our tab, they might get in a really really bad mood.

      Just my two cents.

      1. In WWII the Germans had decidedly better technology than we did -- but we won because we just overwhelmed them with numbers.

        That can be disputed in a number of fields, particularly in Naval technology. Of course, the allies had a nice combination of British technology, American manufacturing and a screwed up tyrant willing to throw millions of his subjects into a meat grinder. And, once back on the continent, some tasty bread, wine and cheese once the French washed out their soiled undergarments.

      2. The Chinese aren't so tough.

        1. Oh, Yea? Come and try that again. The Boxers were pussys compared to Long Marchers.

      3. Which country is more likely to block sea routes? Would it be one that wants to sell its products to all comers, or one full of resentful people who feel "they stole all our jobs and markets". We Americans have priced ourselves out of world markets by using credit and inertia to sustain a life style far above our means. We have been consuming more than we produce for some time, and now that it is time to pay the piper, there are a lot of folks here who want to place all the blame on anyone else handy. I would be more worried about some demagogue pushing Americans into aggressive actions than a country that needs open markets taking such actions.

        1. Given the (perhaps mildly surprising) continuity in foreign policy between Dems and Reps, I think you're reading the tea leaves wrong. You sound like a progressive yourself.

          "We" (our idiot leaders) think we can afford to knock around the piss ants of the world (Iraq for example) with our big high tech military. Because we think high tech buys us more power than it really does. But I sincerely doubt they'll pick a deliberate fight with a power the size of China, short of serious provocation.

          The fact that we've more or less tied our wagon to Taiwan, could readily be the source of such a provocation in the future. Whether or not we should let the PRC over run Taiwan is another story entirely. But if you're one of these people who claims China wouldn't do it, if they thought they could pull it off, you need to get a grip.

      4. The Chinese aren't so tough.

        1. Come on back and see us again. We have some surprises for you.

      5. The Chinese aren't so tough.

        1. I need to redeem my self after that coup attempt and plane crash. I'll take you on with one hand tied behind my back.

  13. Ah, the fear side of the American Exceptionalism coin: the notion that all everybody else in the world does is fixate on how they're gonna conquer the U.S.

    Hey, if you're gonna worry about anything, worry about the U.S. destroying itself. It's well on the way.

    1. "Everybody else" thinks about these possibilities just like we do, whether or not our "progressives" and other EuroThinkers would like to pretend they don't. And they do like to pretend.

      But you've got a good point, right now I'd almost bet on us destroying ourselves before anyone ever gets a shot at it.

  14. took the "Which X-Men Character Are You?" quiz

    What, no link?

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