Fun on a budget
Congress is incapable of restraining spending. Itshould let the president try
AT THE end of Barack Obama's budget, which waspublished on February 2nd, the administration thanks 614 people by name for putting thething together. It adds that “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of nameless others also helped.There is something depressing about the effort that went into producing the document. Thebudget is an admirable piece of work which contains many good ideas, from cuts in farmsubsidies to an increase in tax credits for childless workers. There is, however, a grammaticalmistake repeated throughout it. “The budget will”, the president writes, when what he means isthat his budget would, in the unlikely event that Congress were ever to pass it.
As a guide to what the federal government might look like if America were a monarchy, or as acompendium of interesting policies, the president's budget is a good read—but not muchmore. A similar criticism applies to most proposals that come out of the budget committees inCongress. This is because no group or individual is responsible for the 4 trillion federal budget,a fact that helps explain how it manages to be both profligate and stingy, and is forever in thered.
The president's budget would not change that. He has declared an end to “mindlessausterity”, but does not seem to care much for the thoughtful sort either. In previousbudgets he offered to trim entitlements a bit in return for tax increases. Republicans inCongress rejected this, and Democrats who supported the president's budget were rewardedwith attack adverts in the mid-terms claiming that they wanted to raise the retirement age andslash Medicare. He now proposes higher taxes, more spending and continued deficits. Publicdebt would stay at its current level, around 75% of GDP, for the next decade. By 2025,according to the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, annual interestpayments would rise from 1.3% to 2.8% of GDP (nearly 800 billion, or enough to pay a year'stuition at Harvard, at current prices and with no financial aid, for 18m students).
Mr Obama's tax-and-spend priorities may be regrettable but they matter little in practice,because no president really controls how much his administration spends. The president'sbudget was an innovation of the 1920s. Before then, Congress set the budget as theFounders, ever suspicious of a strong central authority, intended. This worked well until thecivil war, when the federal government's principal peacetime duties were to run customs housesand post offices and to give away land. By the beginning of the 20th century the federalgovernment had become much more complicated. The first world war increased federalspending from 726m to 18.5 billion in five years (17.2 billion and 253 billion in today's money.)In 1921 an overwhelmed Congress asked the president to submit a budget for the first time.
Since then every president has done so, but the exercise has become drained of meaning sinceCongress took power over the budget back. This evil can be traced to Watergate. RichardNixon, worried about inflation and the deficit, decided not to spend all the money Congresshad appropriated. At one point he vetoed nine spending bills in one go. Congress tookadvantage of the scandal that was enveloping the president to reduce his control over federalspending in the 1974 Budget Act. Nixon duly signed the law in July and resigned the followingmonth.
One of the new law's stated aims was to control the deficit, but it has had the opposite effect.From 1950 to 1974 the deficit averaged 0.7% of GDP; since Congress retook control it hasaveraged 3.2%. Part of the problem is that the budget Congress comes up with only covers afraction of what the federal government actually spends. Over 1 trillion of tax expenditures—rebates on anything from mortgage-interest payments to health-insurance plans providedby companies for employees—are excluded. Another 2 trillion is off-limits because it is classifiedas mandatory spending. The staggering sums pumped into entitlement programmes (SocialSecurity, Medicare and Medicaid) increase every year on the accounting equivalent of cruisecontrol, with no need for a vote. Since the youngest of the baby-boomers are now in theirearly 50s, and since no politician would dare touch the benefits of those close to retirement,America's biggest generation has now protected itself from cuts to Social Security.
Bring back Dick
As entitlement spending has risen, it has squeezed the other bits of the budget. What remainsis just over 1 trillion in discretionary spending: 6.5% of GDP, or less than a third of the totalspent by the federal government. This is up for discussion every year. The resultingcompromise is known as the budget, but that gives an inflated sense of what it really is.
According to textbooks the budget is a thing jointly agreed by both houses of Congress andthen signed by the president by the end of September each year. This is how the budget hasworked six times in the past 40 years. The rest of the time it has often consisted of last-minutenegotiations to avoid a government shutdown or a breach of the debt ceiling. Agreement isreached only by putting off difficult decisions indefinitely. Attempts by well-intentioned super-committees and gangs of congressmen to get to something more thoughtful have come tonothing. This failure to steer the budget has been bipartisan. Since 1974 the federalgovernment has run a deficit in all but four years, 1998-2001. Now that both the House andthe Senate are controlled by Republicans the budget should be more orderly, but theprocess must be made to work when Congress is divided.
One solution would be to forgive Nixon and hand back some authority to the executive.Another would be to make the president's budget the default one unless Congress can agree,by a simple majority, on something else. That would stop the proliferation of no-compromisebudgets, and would make a president content with a budget forever in deficit a figure from thepast.
1.apply to 适用于;运用
Find out ahead of time what regulations apply toyour situation.
Similar arrangements apply to students who areordinarily resident in Scotland.
2.responsible for 为…负责，是造成…的原因
I feel partly responsible for the problems we're in.
Ludlam was responsible for making Ridiculous Theatre something of a cult.
3.seem to 看起来
My sight is failing, and I can't see to read any more.
Leave it up to me. I'll see to it.
4.financial aid 财政援助
The country has no access to foreign loans or financial aid.
We are moving ahead with plans to send financial aid.