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Inside the Beltway

The White House Budget Bungle

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

The budget game is far from over, but the president booted the ball on opening day, all but assuring his adversaries a victory. Barack Obama may have the intellectual mettle for the highest office in the country, but too often his political instincts don’t measure up. The contest over the fiscal year 2016 budget makes that crystal clear.

Three months have passed since the White House released its spending blueprint, blasting apart the spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). In February, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office was already forecasting a decline in the federal deficit to $468 billion in fiscal year 2015, dramatically below the high of $1.4 trillion in 2009. And the president argued that it was time to hike spending for both national security and domestic needs that had been accumulating during the last four years.

His budget request contained $74 billion more in expenditures than the BCA allowed, split about evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary accounts. That split, he said, struck the right balance. Contained in the increase, incidentally, was a boost of more than 5 percent for science accounts, almost all of them on the non-defense side of the ledger.

The president has shown a proclivity for exercising executive authority over a variety of contentious issues, but removing the BCA caps was one he knew he could not accomplish unilaterally. Congress needed to pass new legislation. And with Republicans in control of Capitol Hill, he must have known the odds were against it, at least on the non-defense side.

Defense spending is another matter. Except for the small band of isolationists among them, most members of the GOP were clamoring for more military money. Fiscal hawks wanted offsets from non-defense accounts, but others were content simply to find a BCA work-around.

As House and Senate Republicans began to tackle the Budget Resolution that would determine overall spending, it became clear that the work-around would carry the day. The instrument they settled on was an account called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which is not subject to BCA caps.

Using that mechanism, both chambers added about the same amount of new money for defense the president had called for in his February budget request. And with military needs taken care of, congressional Republicans refused to consider legislation that would rewrite the BCA. Non-defense discretionary programs would simply remain subject to the law’s spending limit.

So as the appropriations process rolls forward, Congress is poised to give the president half a loaf without having to lift a negotiating finger. It’s hard to see how he can reject the very defense spending he called for. And it’s also hard to see how he can achieve the non-defense spending he sought. The opening day budget error has left him with precious few bargaining chips.

Consider where he might be today if had he focused his February request solely on non-defense spending increases. He could begin bargaining with defense hawks by threatening to veto military increases, unless they agreed to a deal that would add money to non-defense discretionary programs. By so doing, he eventually might be able to arrive at the spending balance he asserted was right for the country.

I respect Barack Obama’s intellect, integrity, and sincerity, but succeeding in the often-brutal world of today’s Washington requires far more. Politics is the art of recognizing what is possible and then using effective bargaining skills to achieve the end you want. Starting at the end and trying to convince people you’re right and they’re wrong is usually a losing strategy – even when you are right and they are wrong.

Logic and evidence might carry the day in science and law, but in politics persuasive argument, alone, will not suffice. Compromise, horse-trading, and an occasional threat of retribution are additional essential ingredients for success.

The president’s budget bungle is a fait accompli, and all the kvetching in the world can’t change it. We’ll just have to live with the consequences: increased military spending and, in all likelihood, a series of continuing resolutions (CR) for almost everything else. Of course before we get to the CRs we’ll have to weather threats of vetoes, actual vetoes, threats of government shutdowns, and more lollygagging than we can stomach.

But, hey, this is Washington. By now we should be used to it. A decade ago, sausage-making was an apt though distasteful metaphor for legislating. Today all that remains of the sausage is a rancid odor.


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