On February 26, 2015

With the budget, the President calls the shots

By Lee H. Hamilton

It may not be obvious from the news coverage, but a good bit of Congress’s 2015 agenda just landed on Capitol Hill with a thud. I mean this literally. The federal budget that President Obama recently submitted runs to 2,000 pages.

This is the most important government document produced each year, so its heft is more than physical. The budget is how we decide what share of this country’s economic resources we should devote to government—and how we should spend them.

Which is why the political maneuvering begins the moment it arrives. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard a budget declared “dead on arrival.”

Yet here’s what you need to remember: Congress changes only a small portion of the budget. In general, all but five or ten percent of the White House’s spending blueprint will make it through intact. The president’s budget, in other words, is never “dead on arrival.”

This is not to say that what Congress does will be unimportant. The debate from here on out will be specifically about taxing and spending priorities—about how much money should go to defense, or homeland security, or social welfare—and more generally about who has the best ideas for addressing the country’s needs.

Congress faces important questions. The deficit, which in past years was the focus of furious debate, holds less attention this year because we’ve made so much progress in reducing it. On the other hand, the federal debt—what we owe to creditors who financed our accumulated annual deficits—is higher than it’s been for generations. We do not need to panic about our finances, but we can’t afford to be complacent either.

There will be voices in Congress over the next few months urging that we curb spending sharply. In a recovering economy still beset with income stagnation, I’d argue that slamming hard on the brakes would be a mistake. Instead, we need to shift our spending toward investment, focusing on areas that generate or underpin economic growth: infrastructure, research and development, education.

Congress used to reign supreme in budget-making. Now, the president has become the chief budget-maker. The maneuvering on Capitol Hill over the next few months will nudge the country in one direction or another. But our basic course was already set by the time those 2,000 pages hit lawmakers’ desks.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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