The headlines never tell the whole story.
By Ryan Alexander
For budget watchdogs like Taxpayers for Common Sense, there is a certain rhythm to the release of a presidential budget. First, in the weeks prior to release, the administration will float a few details, giving Congress, the press and the public a couple of hints about what is coming. Then, on budget day, the real fun starts – running around town to go to budget briefings, collecting documents provided by the agencies and combing through page after page of spreadsheets and budget narratives looking for details, anomalies and the story that each budget tells.
So what should we expect today from the release of the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget?
1) A budget is not written in stone: Let’s start with the most obvious and general point. The documents released by the administration are a plan for how to raise and spend money. The plan is built on a set of assumptions: how much revenue will be generated if certain policies remain in place and others are changed and how much will be spent on different projects. A presidential budget provides important details about priorities, about which programs and projects the president hopes to expand or terminate, and where, among the many agencies in government, the sitting administration chooses to allocate our precious tax dollars. What a presidential budget does not do is tell us what Congress will actually adopt as law and what it will ignore completely. The budget is a plan, it is not law.
[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
2) Congress has already announced how much money the president can assume there is to spend on all government operations: The December 2013 budget deal announced what Congress would agree to appropriate, and at least tacitly acknowledged that it wouldn’t be making major tax policy changes that would make any difference in fiscal year 2015. The December deal adjusted the discretionary spending cap upward from the spending levels set in 2011 to $1.013 trillion.
3) Last week, the president announced he would provide an alternative budget that increases discretionary spending by $56 billion: These increases will be split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Let’s be clear: The proposed bump ups are simply a political budget gimmick. Expect very attractive program items to appear in the “optional” extra $56 billion, from benefits for military personnel to favored education programs. A few weeks down the road, we also expect a budget resolution from the House of Representatives that may shift spending levels down from the levels set in December and that, too, is intended more as a political vehicle than a serious policy proposal. This budget ping-pong won’t necessarily get us closer to actually managing our affairs in a sustainable way, but they will show us what everyone stands for.
4) Headlines will likely focus on cuts to the military and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit: The trial balloons we’ve heard from the administration have focused on the efforts by the Department of Defense to control Pentagon spending and by the administration’s proposed changes to a program supporting working families, which both Republicans and Democrats generally support. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s speech last month gave us lots of information about the direction Pentagon spending is going, and we saw some good signs. But let’s put this all in perspective: Even these proposals are aimed at slowing the growth of defense spending (appropriate now that we are not waging multiple wars) are insufficient. We expect the Earned Income Tax Credit proposal to set up a debate between the parties about what policies truly make sense for struggling families and the economy overall.
5) The headlines never tell the whole story: It will take our team of budget nerds at Taxpayers for Common Sense days if not weeks to comb through all the budget documents provided by the administration, some of which will not be released until next week. The one thing we know for sure is that hidden in the budget justification documents, charts, and tables, there will be important information not highlighted in press release or briefings. Taxpayers for Common Sense will be collecting and posting all the original documents provided and analyzing what we read.