If you know anything about the annual ritual of the presidential budget release you know that it doesn’t really matter. It makes for a noisy news cycle and some political fodder. But after a few days, it quickly recedes back into the darkness without having a whole lot of impact on federal policymaking. President Obama’s budget was once voted down in the Senate 0-99. President Trump’s budget will not even receive a hearing in the Senate, with Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi saying that “Congress doesn’t pay attention to the president’s budget exercise.”
At the same time, the roll out and response to the budget shows us why our federal budget problems are so persistent. Any proposed reforms that yield savings in the entitlement programs – by far the largest budget item – are cast as gutting the social safety net. Any proposals to reduce spending on smaller programs – even ones that fund Bob Dylan sculptures in Mozambique – are couched in terms of heartless cuts to critical endeavors.
Budget news coverage suffers from a strange schizophrenia. Any time there are reports of the federal government reaching the daunting $1 trillion annual deficit mark, they are met with boos and hisses.
But proposals that attempt to address the deficit – such as some reforms in the President’s Budget- are met with even louder boos and hisses.
It’s sad, but to be expected, that political opponents will offer scathing remarks, such as when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the Trump budget “brazenly inflict[s] savage multibillion-dollar cuts” to entitlement programs.
But opportunistic politics are not the only troubling aspect of how our nation covers budget news. Headlines from prominent news organizations also pour lighter fluid on the flames of misinformation about the state of our budget.
Let’s canvas some of these headlines.
The left column casts the proposed cuts in a negative light. The right column also casts the perpetual deficits in a negative light. What no one mentions, of course, is that we won’t be able to address the problems in the right column without some of the ideas panned in the left column.
Even worse, the headlines don’t paint an accurate depiction of what the budget proposal would actually do.
Let’s unpack the idea that the Trump budget “slashes” spending or “guts” the social safety net. Here is the proposed federal spending over the next decade in the Trump budget:
Here is spending on federal healthcare programs…
And Social Security…
These charts show the “cuts,” “slashes,” and “guts” of federal spending. Far from a dramatic downward turn, all of the expenditures will continue to go up each and every year.
So what’s really going on?
These budget “cuts” don’t actually mean that programs would get less money than they currently receive. They really just represent a slowdown in spending growth. So these programs aren’t gutted – we will still be spending more and more money on them every year – the yearly increase would just be less than “current law” baseline.
But here’s the catch.
That current law baseline is the same baseline responsible for the $1 trillion deficits into the infinite future. Yes, the same ones the publications lament when they write about the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) budget outlooks.
Point to the baseline and say those darn lawmakers need to fix it. Point to the fix and say those darn lawmakers are gutting our programs.
This is a win-win for publications trying to pummel lawmakers. It’s a lose-lose for the next generations who are going to inherit this budget mess.
It’s long overdue that our budget coverage provides a more accurate depiction of our nation’s budget picture. We need to know what the trajectory of our budget path is absent reforms. And then we need to see the options for reforms and their possible impacts. Enough with crying foul over the status quo and every idea to change it.
The current divide between coverage of our nation’s fiscal problems and coverage of fiscal solutions is inhibiting a breakthrough in both.