Sound and Fury or a Tell?

The Budget Brigade never finds itself short of words when it comes to commenting on the president's budget proposal. But it is, after all, just a proposal. What is the practical effect of the president's budget? Bruce Bartlett writing at Capital Gains and Games in a great post on of the history of federal budget making says "not much."

Given all these changes in the budget process, 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. Congress tends to rely exclusively on the CBO for all its budget numbers and analysis. Although departments and agencies are supposed to adhere to the president's priorities, they do so only half heartedly.

Nevertheless, the media still maintain the fiction that the president's budget is something meaningful. Journalists dutifully report that the president is slashing such and such program, freezing spending or giving the go ahead to some headline-catching initiative. But at the end of the day the final budget has little if anything to do with the president's priorities. Congress mostly decides how the money will be spent and lobbyists probably have more to say about it than OMB does.

All true, I think, except about the bit about the president's priorities. The reason we talk so much about the president's budget is because it's an insight into how the president intends deploy available resources. True, Congress (and lobbyists) has a lot say about which programs get what funds, but that's not the final word by any means in how federal funds are spent. If OSHA gets a ton of money to enforce worker safety rules, the head of OSHA (hired by the president because she is friendly to his governing philosophy) could opt to give across-the-board pay raises to her staff rather than hire more people to inspect workplaces. The president's budget is a bit more than just a deck of jokers; it's a tip of the president's hand.

Image by Flickr user Kalense Kid used under a Creative Commons license.

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