It’s President’s budget day in here in the nation’s capital and while I believe there’s a lot to be said about what’s coming in the budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, I’ll grant that Lori Montgomery makes some good points in her piece entitled: “Five reasons Obama’s budget matters even less than usual this year.”
For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I disagree, but some of her points are well taken. First off, like all of his other budgets, this one will not become law (and, of course, the same should be said of the House Republicans’ budget).
Second, the Murray/Ryan budget deal from the end of last year already set top line discretionary spending levels for 2015, though of course they could be changed by subsequent legislation.
In the wake of the government shutdown in October, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the heads of the House and Senate budget committees respectively, brokered an agreement to keep the trains running through September 2015. That agreement did one of the most important things a budget needs to do on Capitol Hill: It informed the appropriations committees how much money they have to spend. Obama’s budget request will offer a vision for how to apportion the money — roughly $1.1 trillion — among the various federal agencies, but the big question is already settled.
Still, you’ve really got to view these documents as aspirational and as such, representative answers to the most existential questions of our current politics: what is the role of government, how large should that role be, how should it be financed, what is the balance between austerity and investment in public goods, in what ways is the market failing to meet the needs of broad swaths of the population and which are the best policies to meet those market failures?
You don’t follow this news today to see what’s going to become law in the near term. You do so to learn the terms of debate, in this case from the administration, a debate that will be ongoing for many months to come. This year, those terms promise to be particularly germane because the President’s budget will build on the ideas he put forth in the State of the Union address, around inequality and opportunity.
Thus, you will see the administration chafing at the bit of unsustainably tight budget caps on discretionary spending (which, to be fair, they helped to create) and proposing spending to relax those caps to invest more in manufacturing, worker training, preschool, and more. You will see an exciting proposal to significantly expand the part of the Earned Income Tax Credit that goes to childless adults, an idea that has some bipartisan support (though the sticking point will of course be “wherefore the payfor”—the expansion costs $60 billion over 10 years; the WH will propose closing some loopholes that benefit wealthy taxpayers, like the “carried interest loophole,” another way in which the proposal pushes back on income inequality).
These arguments are as old as the Republic itself; they’re Hamilton v. Jefferson; YOYOs v. WITTs. Sure, when the news is coming from dysfunction junction down here in DC, there are reasons to be skeptical and even cynical. But to go there—to disengage from this existential debate—is not only a serious mistake. It is a politically biased mistake that supports those who would very much like you to disengage so they can continue to diminish the role of government and ignore the growing inequality of opportunity that strikes at the heart of America’s best aspirations and values.
So get ready to get your budget-wonk on and follow here and at CBPP.org throughout the next few days.