It’s Just a List, Right?

Charles Cooper

The theatre of the president’s budget.

United States Capitol and the Senate Building, Washington DC USA

Co-Authored by Nadeam Elshami

Part of the fun in the release of the president’s budget is watching all the theatre around it – the president’s party is generally in agreement with some elements, while frantically running away from others; those not in the president’s party work to link their opponents to all the controversial policies in the budget, as though they championed them.

At the same time, everyone knows the budget survived the car ride from the White House to the Capitol, but it is pretty much inactive thereafter.

It’s good political theatre, but there are some significant (albeit not immediate) consequences to the budget (regardless of its prospects) that shouldn’t be entirely ignored. After all, it does provide insight into where the president’s priorities are and, sometimes more importantly, where they are not.

For those closely watching federal programs, a review of the budget should trigger questions and concerns well beyond it. For those who dismiss these important insights as simply “going nowhere,” their priorities may fall victim to a longer-term game plan they are missing.

For example, consider the “major savings and reforms” list that is attached to the budget. This year, this list provides recommendations for over $25 billion in discretionary program eliminations and over $22 billion in discretionary program funding reductions.

It’s easy to look at this list and think “but the budget goes nowhere; it’s just a list, right?” Not quite.

For programs proposed for elimination – from the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Community Development Block Grants to the TIGER Grant Program and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – simply being on this list presents meaningful risk.

First, the President of the United States, with the support of relevant cabinet members and the Office of Management and Budget, favors elimination of the program. Regardless of the merits of their argument, they are heavy opponents to face in a funding fight, either now or down the road.

Secondly, building a record around a program may not seem like a risk in today’s political landscape, but tomorrow’s political landscape could be vastly different. The policymakers defending the program may be faced with other priorities competing for their political clout, or may not be as well-positioned to defend the program, or may even no longer be in Congress. The administration that just recommended the program be eliminated will be here for at least the next two funding debates, and we are certain the vast majority of the recommendations on this year’s list will be there again next year.

Lastly, these lists give policymakers ideas, causes, and priorities in an era when notching policy victories isn’t easy. For an energetic policymaker, identifying a program on the list as an elimination to champion is a new opportunity to demonstrate leadership with the built-in support of the president.

So, when evaluating the budget, don’t just consider its lifespan in the legislative process – consider the long-term implications to the issues you care about regardless of the budget’s future. In other words, when your favorite program shows up on the “Major Savings and Reforms” list, don’t dismiss it.