Wishful Budgeting

Why budgets never actually get resolved in Congress.

The S&P called it “brinksmanship.” But really the Republican-led House of Representatives, in concert with their Senate colleagues, are intent on doing nothing more than preventing President Obama from winning a second term. So it’s no surprise that now, eight months into their “reign,” they have produced absolutely nothing that contributes to the recovery of the economy, lowering unemployment or increasing GDP. The president is partly to blame. He allowed the Republicans to dictate the agenda. Instead of jobs and growth, Republicans began yammering about the debt. Obama, seemingly a man on a mission to impress the “independents” (voters with no political moorings), just went along with the gag.

Alas, rest in political peace the likes of progressive presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and even our great “triangulator,” Bill Clinton. Nor should we forget moderate Republican members of Congress such as Howard Baker, Bob Packwood, Bob Michaels, Everett Dirksen, John Rhodes and Ray La Hood. And let’s not overlook conservative presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan; neither would recognize this bunch.

Obstructionism has been followed by one ridiculous idea after another, all advanced with the intent of pandering to “their base” — an odd mix of plutocrats who have everything to gain, dreary Armageddon fundamentalists, and voters who regard basic civics to be an elitist plot.

The latest and most outrageous idea? My nominee is their balanced budget amendment. Let me list the outrages:

1. The framers avoided incorporating policy into the Constitution. Instead they focused on allocation of authority and process. The one time that policy was incorporated into the basic document was when the 18th Amendment was ratified back in 1919. And we know how that worked out. It served to create an entire organized crime industry. Al Capone owed everything to Prohibition.

2. Budgets seldom account for all government spending. Take the disastrous Bush adventure into Iraq, for example. Not one dime of the now $3 trillion spent in the Middle East wars ever appeared on the president’s budget. And don’t tell me that a Republican-led Congress, if faced with a similar situation, would insist that the next such adventure appear on the budget. Bush, with his party’s full cooperation, funded the war “off budget” through what’s known as “supplemental appropriations.”

3. The entire congressional budget process is a farce and should be reformed, if not dumped altogether. It wasn’t until 1974 that we had either a Congressional Budget Office or a Congressional Budget. Then, in the spirit of reform, the goal being to take power away from both authorization committees and appropriation committees, Congress created its budget committees along with the tediously complex reconciliation process. To understand why this idea was doomed to fail, all you have to do is count. There are 12 months in every year, no more, and at no time in history had the Congress ever managed to complete its annual agenda of business in that 12-month period of time.

Here’s the yearly schedule of events: The day following the State of the Union Address in January, the business begins. Authorization committees meet and pass policy bills. The summer is taken up with appropriations bills. The tax bills, revenue measures just kind of keep in touch with moving targets — GDP growth estimates, inflation guesses, marginal tax rates, loopholes, etc.

Then, in 1976, in an attempt to complete its work on time, Congress moved the start of the fiscal year from July 1 to October 1. Dream on. Into this already over-packed schedule, insert the budget process with its reconciliation feature, and guess what? Right. You have even more work that doesn’t get done, leading to ever-larger continuing resolutions, which are passed later and later and later.

Former Washington State Congressman Al Swift spoke to the problem in a speech he delivered before the Northwest Political Science Association way back in 1982. He noted that during the reconciliation process, “almost nothing else is moving through the Congress.” Also, what was never discussed was the way in which both the sitting administration and the Congress can make the budgets say anything they want them to say.

In his book The Triumph of Politics, Reagan budget director David Stockman recalled how the numbers were made to add up simply by overestimated GDP growth, which, observed Stockman, was set at the unreasonable rate of 6 percent per annum. That inflated guess is how the revenue resulting from the tax cuts was justified.

Enter Bush II, who pulled off this stunt for eight straight years. But Bush outdid Reagan. As noted, in addition to overestimating growth, he never included the cost of his Iraq war. Surprise, surprise, the national debt doubled.

I could go on, but the drift is just this: The GOP balanced budget amendment proposal, a policy proposal if there ever was one, would make James Madison roll over in his grave. It’s a sham writ large.

If you want an amendment that might make things better, how about giving the president — be they Republican or Democrat — a line-item veto. In the meantime, could the Congress at least avoid running a sham operation? Lacking any better idea, why not go back to governing the old way: The president presents his budget, it is farmed out to the committees, the Congress “disposes” of it, and if the president doesn’t like what he sees, then his veto pen comes out.

At least this would be honest. And a hell of a lot more efficient.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.