Obama submits budget. Why did he bother?

By law, Obama is required to submit a budget. But presidential budgets, which become starting points for political fights, routinely are dead on arrival, and Obama's is deader than most.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama answers a question about the situation in Ukraine, following remarks on the budget at Powell Elementary School in Washington March 4, 2014.

Why do presidents bother to submit budgets to Congress nowadays? They’ve become starting points for political fights as much as the first draft of the nation’s fiscal plan.

The opposition party reaction to President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget plan is typical. Before it had even been released the National Republican Congressional Committee was gleefully bashing it, issuing a series of press releases asking whether individual Democratic lawmakers would support Obama’s outline.

“Higher taxes? More spending? Sounds right to [insert name of vulnerable House Democrat here],” read the NRCC’s e-mails.

Of course, if budget submissions are now always dead on arrival, Obama’s 2015 plan is deader than most. To paraphrase Monty Python, it’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible.

That’s because, with the 2014 elections looming, the White House is looking to keep Democrats unified, not compromise with Republicans. It’s dropped from the budget a plan to reduce the growth in Social Security benefits by changing the way they are adjusted for inflation. And it seeks billions in new spending for such Democratic priorities as expanded preschool education and job training for laid-off workers.

Plus, last year’s government shutdown delayed the budget’s finalization. This year the administration missed its chance to link its budget submission to the State of the Union speech, a typical move that ensures greater attention to particulars.

This doesn’t mean the president missed a chance to have his plan whooped through Congress. As this great chart from the Washington Post shows, presidents never get the spending totals they want. Democrats get less than requested. Republicans get more.

The paper exercise has become such a kabuki play that veteran budget expert Stan Collender opined earlier this month that it may be time to eliminate the president’s budget submission entirely.

“No matter who has been president and which political party controlled Congress, the budget has become so unimportant that its release essentially is now a nonevent,” writes Collender, now a national director of Qorvis Communications.

Presidential budgets no longer serve as the starting point for the serious business of planning the US government’s year, according to Collender. Instead they’ve become a “political liability, something to criticize and reject out of hand.”

However, there is one big reason why administrations keep up this cycle of submit-and-get-hammered. It’s the law. It’s been a legal requirement since the passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

Of course, it’s also the law that Congress is supposed to pass its own budget resolution to establish spending category top lines. That seldom happens. Last year, the House and Senate manage to get together to pass a two-year resolution. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has already said she’ll rely on that document to set this year’s spending goals, and won’t write a 2015 budget resolution.

As a congressional staff member, Mr. Collender helped write the laws governing the congressional budget process, so he knows the pitfalls. His solution is simple: change the law so that the president is not required to submit a budget the year after Congress fails to adopt its budget resolution.

“In the meantime we should all save a few trees or bytes of memory when the president’s budget is released. It’s just not going to mean very much and should not be taken that seriously,” he writes.

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