They Just Don’t Make Presidential Budgets Like They Used to

Posted January 15, 2010 at 4:17pm

There was a time when the submission of the president’s budget to Congress was a very big deal. Not only was it a front-page story across the country, but the major daily newspapers typically had a multi-page spread with reporters pulled from other beats to write about many different aspects of what was proposed. The president’s budget typically didn’t just lead the evening news on the day it was released; it dominated that night’s broadcast and was the subject of follow-up reports through the week.

[IMGCAP(1)]It’s not the same today. Although the phrase “dead on arrival— hasn’t been as evident in recent years as it was a decade or so ago, the president’s budget still often quickly fades from view. Instead of being news for days or even weeks, the president’s budget increasingly has become a one-day story.

Part of the reason for this change is the much faster speed at which news and information is disseminated today than it was when Lyndon Johnson was president. The previously typical front-page-above-the-fold-with-a-banner-headline story that used to appear the day after the budget was released is now reported more or less instantly on the Web. The administration’s budget documents, which used to be hard to find for days after they were sent to the Hill and left much to be reported for days or even weeks, can now be downloaded at the same time they’re officially released.

That changes the next-day reporting about what the president proposed, which had been the big news of the day, into a feature story. By the second day, there’s little to be reported and the president’s budget is relegated to print op-eds, talk radio bloviating, blog posts and “gotcha— interviews on the weekend talk shows. By then, the biggest story is often what opinion polls say about the impact the budget had on the president’s approval rating.

But the other reason the annual submission of the president’s budget to Congress has become less important is that the budget has become much more of a political statement than it used to be. Instead of setting out a substantive agenda for the year and series of proposals to make it happen, the president’s budget now has become a one-time statement designed to meet the White House’s very short-term political needs. The administration doesn’t talk about its budget too long after it has been submitted, the budget is largely forgotten within a few months and the likelihood of the individual proposals actually getting enacted is far less important.

To a certain extent, the president’s budget has always been at least partly a political document. But the budget’s other major roles — providing an accounting of what was done in the past and serious plans for what to do next — increasingly have taken a backseat to the political aspects of what’s being proposed today. That’s why the substantive, functional presentations of what’s in the president’s budget have been replaced over the years with things that provide decidedly less information. For example, budgets submitted by the George W. Bush administration replaced what up to then had been standard tables with things that were more often seen in campaign literature. Instead of the traditional multiyear array of numbers that allowed a reader to see for himself or herself what was being proposed, a color picture of a Cabinet secretary shaking hands with someone at a staged event, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or with a shovel at a groundbreaking often was used. And the printed version of the budget documents used glossy paper that seemed more appropriate for a brochure handed out by a candidate for re-election than a budget submitted by a president to Congress.

As part of its increasingly political nature, the submission of the president’s budget has become a very carefully choreographed series of events worthy of the release of a Hollywood blockbuster. It typically starts with leaks about what will be proposed the weekend before the president delivers the State of the Union address. A few days later, the president delivers that speech to a large, national, prime-time television audience where the highlights of what will be included in the budget are announced. The address is delivered with pomp and pageantry in the grandiose House chamber where approximately half the audience provides repeated standing ovations. It’s a spectacle that can’t possibly be matched by whoever gives the response.

That leads to administration officials doing a series of interviews for select reporters and a speech or two by the president around the country that emphasizes the same themes revealed in the State of the Union. The weekend talk shows then pick up the story with Cabinet members providing some additional details before the budget is released on Monday.

This choreography will be challenged somewhat this year by the White House’s apparent decision to deliver the State of the Union in early February. But as this column was written, there still was no word on when the president’s budget, which this year is supposed to be sent to Congress by Feb. 1, would be released. The administration could release the budget as required, or it could take advantage of the fact that there is no penalty for missing the submission deadline and reschedule it until after the State of the Union.

But the fact that there’s no penalty for submitting the budget after the deadline doesn’t mean that the president won’t be criticized if that’s what he decides to do. After all, his budget primarily will be a political document, its release will be a political event and the criticism will be almost entirely politically motivated.

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.—