Why the Budget Isn’t More of an Issue This Year

Posted September 2, 2008 at 1:42pm

You have to ask yourself why the budget isn’t being discussed more often in this year’s election. All polls show the economy as the No. 1 issue for most voters, and federal spending accounts for more than one-fifth of the economy. Federal taxing creates even more economic activity. On that basis alone, shouldn’t the budget be a big part of whatever political discussion is taking place in an election year? Shouldn’t voters be demanding to hear more?

But for the most part it’s not and they haven’t, at least not so far.

There are four main reasons.

[IMGCAP(1)]First, over the past almost eight years the Bush administration has succeeded in making the federal budget a nonissue. It did this not by dealing with the problem so that there’s nothing to talk about, but rather by making a decision to talk about the budget as little as possible and in so doing limiting the apparent controversy. No controversy meant less news. Less news meant far less media coverage. Less coverage meant much less interest.

Even the annual big-ticket events such as the submission of the president’s budget to Congress seemed to be carefully choreographed during the Bush administration so there was limited national discussion. Previous administrations typically seemed to have a traveling cavalcade of fiscal stars when the president’s budget was released. The director of the Office of Management and Budget, secretary of the Treasury and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers often appeared together to present and defend the president’s budget before multiple Congressional committees and audiences on consecutive days.

But this White House changed the submission of the budget from what had been the political equivalent of a big studio blockbuster opening simultaneously on thousands of screens on a holiday weekend to the premiere of an indie movie at the one theater in town that shows artsy films. As a result, during the Bush administration fewer people knew the budget had even been released, let alone what was in it.

If that doesn’t convince you that there was a definite plan not to talk about the budget, ask yourself whether you remember the last time you saw an OMB director appearing on a Sunday talk show or making a major speech. According to its Web site, the last press release issued by OMB was about six weeks ago on July 23, and that was on managing information technology investments. The last budget-related press release was issued about a month before that on June 27.

Second, for financial reasons, fewer media outlets these days have a reporter exclusively assigned to covering the budget. The days when newspapers, wire services and electronic media had a person exclusively on the budget beat mostly has given way to a situation where there are fewer reporters following a much broader group of economic stories. The result is less reporting on the budget and, therefore, less public interest.

In addition, I have been told frequently over the past few years by the reporters who still cover the budget in some way that getting a story published or on air is increasingly difficult because some editors don’t understand its importance or, thanks in part to the administration’s success at playing down the controversy, don’t see the news value. (As this column proves, Roll Call is a notable and most welcome exception.)

Combine that with what they say in the business is a smaller “news hole,” that is, fewer pages of news in a print publication and fewer minutes devoted to breaking news on television and radio, and it’s not hard to see how the federal budget gets relegated to one paragraph or sound bite.

Third, the budget became a nonissue when the economy went south and concern about the deficit took a decidedly back seat to doing something, or anything, that promised to reverse the perceived downturn. The budget just wasn’t going to stand in the way of a $150 billion stimulus bill.

But not having to worry about the current deficit seems to have provided a free pass to avoid talking much about our substantial future fiscal problems as well. There’s so much focus on what’s happening now that the mammoth difficulties that lie ahead are being given short shrift.

Fourth, the most obvious reasons the budget isn’t a major issue this year is the pain involved in discussing it just before an election. Any serious deficit reduction plan involves tax increases and spending reductions, and there’s no way to be specific about that without creating huge political problems. Simply saying the budget is a problem that has to be dealt with almost immediately results in the follow-up question that few want to answer: “What are you proposing?”

It’s not that some aren’t trying very hard to raise the budget as an issue. A new documentary is being shown with some fanfare across the country that raises awareness of the situation. Reports are being published by politically unbiased organizations that highlight where the presidential candidates stand on the budget and what their policies would do. And local meetings across the country have been held in recent years by others to bring the budget issue directly to voters. (Full disclosure: My firm represents some of the organizations involved in these efforts.)

These efforts will make some difference. But given the efforts of the Bush administration to downplay the budget and this year’s overall hostile environment toward the issue, the real impact is likely to be felt more deeply after, rather than before, Election Day.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is Capital Gains and Games.