Presidential budgets aren’t about economic policy; they’re about political spin.
The release of the budget typically gives the White House the chance to dominate several news cycles, no matter how unrealistic its agenda might be. Until the start of the Reagan administration, the media and interest groups were given copies of the president’s budget and briefed in advance of its formal release. But these days, the administration doesn’t say much (or says it only to a select few) before its budget is public. By the time reporters, columnists, pundits and those who would be affected by the federal budget have a chance to see, understand and comment on what the president is proposing, the White House has issued its own statements; the director of the Office of Management and Budget, secretary of the treasury and other economic representatives have given dozens of interviews; and the headlines have all screamed what the White House wants them to say. The budget rollout also often includes a highly choreographed set of speeches and congressional testimonies for the president and select Cabinet members that for the rest of the week will take the White House’s spin to local audiences and media markets. And if all goes well, the budget will be a big topic of conversation on the next weekend’s political talk shows.
But the budget Trump put out this week is an even more obvious political ploy than most.
Just three days before the Trump budget was released, Congress passed, and Trump signed, legislation that made its top- and bottom-line numbers incorrect by between $400 billion and $600 billion, not a small amount that can be dismissed as a rounding error. And if the White House is being honest, the deal also changed the projected deficit and debt, and the economic forecast — none of which were actually updated in the budget documents the administration put out Monday.
Faced with this credibility problem, it would have made sense for the Trump administration to delay releasing its budget so the new numbers could be fully incorporated. It’s not likely there would have been many complaints from Capitol Hill: Friday’s deal had made the Trump proposal largely irrelevant, and Congress still needs until late March to finish work on the final decisions for fiscal 2018 before it can turn its attention to 2019.
But the administration decided to move ahead with its original budget, instantly transforming it from politically irrelevant to largely useless. The “addendum” on the budget deal the White House sent Congress along with its proposal explained only the president’s preferences for how the additional military and domestic dollars agreed to last Friday should be spent and not how that spending would affect the overall deficit picture.
The Trump 2019 budget is so out-of-date that it will probably be forgotten by Sunday. In the meantime, however, the proposal got covered extensively, even though it was built on incorrect numbers. No doubt the White House was pleased: Even its nonsensical budget produced what Trump aides very likely considered politically helpful headlines.
The president was first required to submit an annual budget almost a century ago when the Budget and Accounting Act was adopted to provide better information for Congress to use when making taxing and spending decisions. But for at least the past 30 years, Congress has more or less done what it wanted to do on spending, working with the administration on specific bills or proposals but not consulting the White House’s budget for much along the way.
Maybe now it makes sense to change that 96-year-old law so that the president’s budget is no longer required. It might even be best to prohibit it entirely.