Five reasons Obama’s budget matters even less than usual this year


(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As we gear up to analyze that behemoth of bureaucracy known as the White House budget, it's worth noting that the request President Obama will send to Congress on Tuesday marks the start of ... um....

Well, it's the start of a new round of political backbiting, really, ahead of the November midterms. And it's the start of a new day for Obama, who is expected to shed the last vestiges of bipartisanship and craft a political rallying point for his party.

But it's hard to say it marks the start of a serious effort to enact a budget for the nation. Here's why:

1. The December budget deal has already set spending levels for fiscal 2015. In the wake of the government shutdown in October, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the heads of the House and Senate budget committees respectively, brokered an agreement to keep the trains running through September 2015. That agreement did one of the most important things a budget needs to do on Capitol Hill: It informed the appropriations committees how much money they have to spend. Obama's budget request will offer a vision for how to apportion the money -- roughly $1.1 trillion -- among the various federal agencies, but the big question is already settled.

2. House Republicans are drafting a budget that ignores Obama's request for more money for education and whatnot. Later this month, Ryan will put out his latest blueprint, which will not only press the case for using vouchers for Medicare benefits, but is also likely to propose sharp cuts to Head Start and Medicaid. How's that for irreconcilable differences?

3. Senate Democrats will not draft a budget at all, as Murray announced Friday. Democratic leaders figure there's no reason to endure the political trauma, which in the Senate can be immense. Voting on a budget means opening the door to a "vote-a-rama," an all-day affair when the Senate is forced to take dozens of meaningless votes on politically toxic issues -- like whether to permit states to tax Internet sales. Given that 2015 spending levels are already set, Murray said, Senate Democrats will just take a pass.

4. Which means that no budget can be enacted. If the House passes a budget and the Senate doesn't, we're right back to that long fallow period when Republicans spent a lot of time complaining about the Senate's failure to pass a budget. And if there's no budget, that means there would be no fast-track procedure for a host of other issues that might make the Obama budget consequential, such as tax reform or financing new spending for infrastructure.

5. Nobody is paying much attention. The budget is super-late this year because of the December budget deal and other machinations on the Hill. That means it is being released more than a month after the State of the Union address, which usually gives it a big messaging boost. Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine is sucking up a lot of oxygen. It's hard to imagine Congress dwelling for long on whatever the White House releases Tuesday.

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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