Despite Obama's campaign vow, federal budget still a mess

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON-2009 was supposed to be the year that federal budgeting was finally done smoothly and efficiently.

It didn't happen.

Spending on discretionary items, or those under White House and congressional control, is expected to run about 4 percent higher than last year, well above the rate of inflation. And a big chunk of the budget was approved three months past due.

"For all the talk about the need to get spending under control, I don't see any of that," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama unveiled a $3.6 trillion budget blueprint and pledged, "No part of my budget will be free from scrutiny or untouched by reform."

Congress then split his requests into a dozen bills, which were supposed to be completed by Oct. 1, the start of the 2010 fiscal year. The process was not completed until this month-nearly one quarter into the fiscal year -- as Congress previously approved stopgap measures to keep the government running.

As now approved, Pentagon spending will rise 0.7 percent this fiscal year-though Obama is expected to seek more money for the Afghanistan war early next year-while domestic spending should rise 8.2 percent, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a budget watchdog group.

When those budgets are combined, spending will grow about 4.1 percent -- less than the 7.5 percent average of the past 10 years, but still well above the current 1 to 2 percent rate of inflation.

And the figures do not include "entitlements," such as Medicare and Social Security, whose payments are fixed by law and are expected to grow about 3 percent this year. Nor do the numbers include most of the February economic stimulus or emergency spending for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Those figures are not included because budget experts prefer to compare year-to-year spending that's within Congress' control. And they generally don't like the way Congress has handled the budget.

"It's ridiculous they can't get a budget passed through the normal process. They're trying to do everything at the last minute," said Marc Goldwein, policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Democratic leaders attribute the budget delay to several factors. Harsh economic times require more spending and result in less revenue, they say. And they point out that passing the $787 billion economic stimulus occupied much of early 2009, war funding dominated spring deliberations and according to Democrats, Republicans kept throwing procedural roadblocks in the way.

As a result, said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., "we find ourselves consistently sidetracked."

Republicans counter that there's no excuse for such delays, and for so little fiscal discipline.

"Millions of families across the country and small businesses are tightening their budgets," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "But the budgets of these federal agencies and of the federal government itself keeps expanding."

The delays and the increased spending could prove a political liability for Democrats, because the public hardly understands the complex budget process.

Analysts said the public is likely to remember what Obama said in March. "The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past," he said, pledging that he would usher in "a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and to demand."

The White House vows that 2010 will be different. "I'm not going to get ahead of what the budget is going to look like in February," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last week. "But suffice to say, that it will not look as it has in the past."

The public is watching. As Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a polling firm, noted, "The president's campaign was based a lot on changing the process, and it looks like business as usual."

The final 2010 budget numbers, which are close to what Obama originally sought, include increases of 23 percent for transportation, 5.5 percent for labor, health and human services and education and 11.6 percent for the Commerce, State and Justice Departments.

Among programs getting the bigger increases are highways, mass transit, energy assistance for low-income consumers, the 2010 census and help for students' college expenses.

Many Democrats understand the public's appetite for spending is waning fast. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the federal deficit this year should reach about $1.4 trillion, the same as last year's record-shattering number.

Two serious efforts are afoot to curb spending.

One would require most spending to be pay-as-you-go, meaning that new spending has to be offset by cuts or tax increases, except in emergency situations. Pay-as-you-go was the law for most of the 1990s, and is regarded as one reason the federal government wound up with surpluses late in the decade.

The other much-discussed antidote is a commission that would recommend ways to cut the national debt, now at $12 trillion and growing. Before leaving last week, lawmakers approved on Christmas Eve a temporary increase, to $12.4 trillion, which should allow the government to issue enough bonds to keep it operating through mid-February.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the committee's top Republican, are pushing for a task force to review the government's financial condition and submit its findings to Congress. Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan last week said this was "going in the right direction."

But it's also drawn strong resistance, including from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who called it "easy way out," and "a big roll of the dice for Social Security and Medicare."

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ON THE WEB

a href=" http://crfb.org/sites/default/files/Discretionary_Spending4_0.pdf">Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget analysis of 2010 spending/a>

a href="http://tinyurl.com/ltlxhj">Congressional Budget Office federal budget analysis/a>

a href=http://tinyurl.com/yb3sdxk">Congressional Budget Office analysis of Senate Democrats' health care bill/a>

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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