The Real Point of the Budget

Washington Matters

The Real Point of the Budget

The spending blueprint is the closest thing we've had to an honest budget in decades, and Obama has made a point of not using budget tricks that not only hid spending but did so in such a way that additional spending -- and widening deficits -- became easier. Obama is clearly trying to follow through on his demands for far greater accountability, responsibility and transparency in government. But getting Congress to back him up will be one of the hardest tasks he faces during his time in Washington.

The old budget tricks have a long inside the Beltway history, like using tax revenue numbers that count the alternative minimum tax as revenue even though Congress changes it every year to keep from hurting middle-class taxpayers, and proposing spending cuts that everyone knows are never going to happen.

But especially gratifying is that Obama plans to avoid the nastiest and most deceptive trick of all: Emergency spending, which has had a special place in the hearts of crooked congressional scorekeepers since the late 1990s. Under modern budgeting rules, any spending over the allotment for a given category of spending has to be paid for with corresponding budget cuts or tax increases -- unless there is an exception that is approved by at least 60 votes in the Senate, a far higher hurdle than a simple majority of 51 votes.

But if the spending is for an emergency, you only need 51 votes. So considerable spending -- including most of the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a host of routine programs -- was taken out of the budget to make room for other things but paid for in supplemental bills at the end of the year. Congress drove trillions of dollars of spending through that gaping loophole because this sleight of hand eliminated an important brake on spending. In the last fiscal year alone, "emergency" spending of $333 billion, or 70%, accounted for 70% of the $488 billion budget, according to Brian Riedl, the budget wiz at the Heritage Foundation.

Of course, now comes the hard part: getting Congress to go along with him. Withdrawal won't be easy, but Obama has taken an important first step: he's bringing the deviousness out in the open in a way that his predecessors haven't.