Don’t get me wrong: budgets are important. They provide a sense of their crafters’ priorities and a roadmap for achieving their goals. But budgets don’t hold the force of law, which means — in our government — they serve as non-binding blueprints and little else.
This is especially true of presidential budgets.
That’s because while the budgetary process starts with the president, where it goes from there is determined by Congress alone. During the Trump years, Congress didn’t even bother bringing the president’s budget to a vote. When Barack Obama was president, it was Republicans who introduced his budgets as resolutions to score political points. Presidential budgets are more often treated as messaging documents than as serious policy proposals.
President Joe Biden’s $5.8 trillion budget is no different: Its significance is limited to telling us what we already know: the administration wants to spend — a lot.
There are expansions to domestic programs. There’s what the news outlet Reuters called “record peacetime military spending.” And sure, there’s the tax on billionaires, and the observation that Biden’s budget, if followed, would reduce the deficit thanks to new revenues.
But these specifics matter little, because they’ll only see the light of day if majorities in Congress ultimately agree with them.
We have become so accustomed to assuming that public policy is set by the executive, that we often forget that Congress is the body that has the authority to appropriate funds, not the president. While Republicans are sure to grandstand now about how Biden’s budget will make everything — particularly inflation — worse, the reality is that the budget itself won’t have one iota of impact on anything.
What Congress decides to spend — and tax — occurs separately from any budget proposed by a president. The true battles lie in the appropriation process, and all the legislation that authorizes expenditures and sets new spending in motion.
Focusing on the president’s budget only distracts from these more important congressional actions, and the news on that front hasn’t been great lately.
Likewise, legislators punted on another installment of Covid-19 relief, not because it spent too much, but because it threatened cuts elsewhere as a means of making the package budget neutral. As one commentator noted, the body’s attempt at being fiscally responsible lasted all of about sixteen hours.
Congress may hold the purse strings, but its process for managing the country’s finances is sorely broken. This is a fact that is obfuscated by hand wringing over what is, and isn’t, in President Biden’s latest “laundry list” of proposals.
Over the last two years, largely in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress spent at a relentless pace, significant portions of which occurred “off-budget.” In other words, much of this spending never appeared in any budget, presidential or otherwise.
This isn’t a new trend, but it’s becoming an increasing problem. Emergency measures have become more frequent, not just because of the pandemic, but because of hurricanes, floods, wars, wildfires and financial crises. The list could go on.
And of course, most of the spending by the federal government is on autopilot anyway. President Biden’s budget, which boosts spending for everything from domestic programs to the military, says little about programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which comprise the majority of the federal ledger. Even if the budget process weren’t broken, we no longer live in the 1960s when the bulk of federal spending was voted on annually.
The budget process simply isn’t what it used to be. No wonder proposals abound for eliminating the House and Senate Budget Committees entirely, an idea that isn’t as bad as one might think. Without the force of law, the work of the budget committees, while helpful, matters little compared with that of the almighty appropriators.
The best solution, if there is one, is to fix the budget process so that budgets actually matter. A bipartisan proposal last Congress sought to do that, but couldn’t get a vote despite making it out of committee.
And so here we are. Another fiscal year and another budget that soaks up the headlines for a few days. But fear not: this one, like those before it, will no doubt be forgotten before long, even by those who wrote it.