But that won’t actually mean anything because the final numbers for a fiscal year aren’t known until it’s over, and they are often very different from what was projected earlier. If the White House and Congress projected that their budgets would be balanced but there was a deficit because revenues were lower or spending was higher than expected, and if we didn’t know about it until after the year was over, getting that year’s budget back to balance would be technically impossible.
There could also be the tried-and-true bipartisan practice of taking a program “off-budget” so it doesn’t count against the budget totals. It’s not at all hard to imagine a situation where, because of the BBA, there is strong support for taking all Pentagon spending off budget so there’s no temptation to cut the military. Given the increasingly intense squawking about the defense cuts that will occur if the super committee doesn’t agree on a deficit reduction plan, evasion like that is likely to be inevitable if a BBA happens.
And that would be just the first drop of bathtub budget gin. Why not change the definition of the federal fiscal year so that it’s 12 months for spending and 18 months for revenues? How about if the government every year books the revenues from the sale of military bases, national parks and other buildings and then counts the smaller annual spending from leasing them back?
Congress and the White House could also do the equivalent of what was done during Prohibition, when sacramental wine was not included in the restrictions. The budget version would be to exempt “emergency” spending from being counted and then make everything an emergency (remember the 2000 census was funded as an emergency to get around other budget restrictions) or, as most states do, have separate capital and operating budgets and require only that the operating budget be balanced. You can’t possibly imagine what suddenly would qualify as capital spending if that were to happen.
One more gimmick leads to yet another remarkable Prohibition parallel. Federal spending could simply go underground, with Washington doing less itself and instead imposing more requirements on businesses and state and local governments.
You can almost imagine a scene such as the one in “Boardwalk Empire” where, with just a few hours to go before Prohibition goes into effect, Nucky Thompson toasts the Congress for having no clue what they were about to unleash. The difference in this case is that it would be Congress that would be doing the toasting.
Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”