Thursday, August 18, 2005

Congress Only Tinkers On The Budget

When it takes up President Bush's proposed budget this year, Congress will not only look at pruning federal spending. It will also consider lopping off a few of its own limbs.

The White House has proposed a series of measures to boost its control over the federal budget, from giving the President veto power over the annual congressional budget resolution Congress's memo to itself on what it plans to do with federal spending to creating a commission to review the performance of federal programs, a role that Congress is supposed to perform routinely. On Capitol Hill these measures will probably be controversial, as legislators fret about handing too much budgetary power to the President. I would agree with them but for one thing: They've already done it.

True, you wouldn't think so if you've listened to congressional leaders and committee chairmen over the past several years. From time to time, they've liked to maintain the pretense of congressional vitality by insisting that the White House's budget or some significant portion of it is dead on arrival. That's just not accurate. It is the President's budget that sets the agenda, and every year the overwhelming majority of it over 90 percent gets enacted. Keep this in mind as you read later this year about the wrangling over this program or that on Capitol Hill: It's largely tinkering. As the levelheaded insider's magazine, the National Journal, put it not long ago, the President is King of the Budget, and he'll get the vast majority of what he wants.

Accustomed as we are to the President laying out the agenda for how the federal government ought to raise and spend the people's money, for most of our nation's history it was different. The framers of the Constitution were quite explicit in giving Congress, rather than the President, the authority to tax and spend. They rightly saw that the power of the purse is what sets the government on its course and allows it to function, and they wanted that power held by the immediate representatives of the people, as James Madison put it. In fact, before 1921 the President didn't even prepare an overall budget proposal; instead, the various executive-branch agencies sent their requests for funding directly to Congress.

All of this began to change as the power of the presidency increased during the New Deal and World War II. More recently, however, what began as a re-balancing of budgetary initiative has become a wholesale shift in power far beyond anything this nation has encountered before. If there is comprehensive debate over budgetary priorities these days, it takes place within the administration, as the various agencies and departments argue with the powerful Office of Management and Budget over their funding levels. Debate and votes within Congress, where the heart of our democracy is supposed to lie, often feel like an after-thought and, at best, affect the budget only on the margins. In a major reversal of roles, Congress has put itself in the position of influencing the budget only through vetoing presidential spending proposals, which it is generally reluctant to do. The Founders would be flabbergasted by this development.

Some of this is due to changing budgetary circumstances. The discretionary portion of the budget that is, the portion not given over to such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare, which are largely ignored by Congress has shrunk over the years, to the point where it now makes up about a third of the budget. But that third includes spending on the military, which Congress is loath to touch, so in truth its chance to weigh in is even more limited than it appears.

The White House, too, has done what it could to chip away at congressional prerogatives. It has acted forcefully to keep the congressional leadership on the same page, and has avoided including the President's top priorities such as funding the war in Iraq in the budget, virtually removing any chance for Congress to scrutinize them as part of the regular budget process.

But much of Congress's budgetary weakness is self-inflicted. It has failed in recent years to carry out robust oversight of federal programs, thereby depriving itself of a way to gauge their effectiveness at budget time. It has mostly abandoned its tradition of appropriating money by using the expertise amassed by its individual committees, instead relying on giant omnibus bills that are written in close cooperation with the administration. And it has basically refused to assert its prerogatives to bring up large issues such as tax policy or entitlement reform apart from the President.

Putting together a budget is not glamorous work. It entails paying close attention to numbers, a mastery of obscure and often mind-numbing details about federal programs, and a willingness to spend long hours scrutinizing government in ways that are unlikely to garner much attention back home. Yet the budget is the basic operating document of the federal government. It was hardly an accident that when the framers laid out the Congress's duties, the very first was to lay and collect taxesand provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. Congress possesses no responsibility more important. The fact that it has been so willing to cede its authority in this sphere to the President suggests that its long tradition of viewing itself as a co-equal branch of government has ended.

(Lee Hamilton was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and is now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.)

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