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Silly Season Begins Early for 2012 Budget Gimmicks

The silly season — when ridiculous, reckless or just plan irresponsible budget-related plans or ideas are proposed and, sadly, often debated — typically doesn’t happen at the start of the year. Usually, at least one or more substantive plans have to be offered, avoided or rejected before the silly season starts.

This year is clearly different. Even though it’s barely February, the president’s budget has not yet been sent to Congress and the House and Senate have not yet begun to trade accusations about who is more to blame for causing the budget issue of the day, the events of the past week or so demonstrate that this year’s silly season is well under way.

As I discussed in last week’s Fiscal Fitness, it started when the House Budget Committee considered a number of budget process changes that 1) had no chance whatsoever of being adopted and 2) would have had no positive effect on the outcome of the budget debate even if they had become law. These proposals were debated by the full House last week and, in what early in the year can already be designated as one of the ultimate ironies of 2012, the time spent to consider these plans as well as all the pixels and paper used to develop and promote them are the type of waste of taxpayer dollars these proposals supposedly were intended to prevent.

But that silliness was just the start.

Last week, eight Republican House Members held a media event to take credit for spending less in 2011 than they were allocated to run their Washington and district offices. That’s something many of their colleagues — Democrats and Republicans — do every year and so was hardly groundbreaking or newsworthy. It also wasn’t much money relative to the amount the House spent as a whole, the amount each Member was allocated, the size of the federal deficit or the size of the total federal budget (I won’t even mention the gross domestic product).

Nevertheless, the fact that each Member spent less than they could have was something they thought their constituents should know, so — complete with visual aids — there was a press conference and photo op.

Last Thursday, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) introduced H.R. 3883, titled the Budget or Bust Act, but what more properly should be referred to as the “Let’s Forget What Didn’t Work Before Act.”

The bill would do two main things. First, it would eliminate the legal requirement that the president submit a budget. Second, it would prevent Representatives and Senators from being paid until a budget resolution for the coming fiscal year is adopted.

As far as the president’s budget is concerned, Broun apparently doesn’t know that what he’s proposing was rejected by Congress as being completely unworkable almost a century ago when the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 became law. Until then, there was no presidential budget, and agencies and departments submitted their requests directly to the House and Senate without any review or coordination by the White House.

Even with the overwhelmingly smaller federal government that existed back then (total spending in 1921, which still included some post-World War I dollars, was $5.1 billion; 2012 spending will be close to $3.8 trillion), Congress found it impossible to deal with the level of detail and lack of coordination between the departments that existed. After all, budget requests were made without any consideration to the overall economy, the level of revenues, the effect on the deficit or surplus or what any other department was requesting. To deal with that, Congress required the president to gather the departments’ requests, make some initial decisions and submit a single document that expressed the administration’s priorities.

Broun also seems not to know that Congress has always found ways around budget process rules that have made life difficult for it in some way. For example, the requirement that Congress adopt a second annual budget resolution each September was routinely rendered meaningless almost immediately after the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 went into effect because the House and Senate didn’t want to vote twice each year on the deficit. Until it eventually was eliminated completely, all Congress did to meet the second budget resolution requirement was to readopt the first budget resolution, even though it was already out of date.

The question for Broun: If Congress found a relatively easy way around a political problem, do you really think it won’t find a similar solution for a provision that prevents Members of Congress from being paid? Do you really think there won’t be significant bipartisan support for the work-around?

Last Thursday was also the day for debate on the House floor on the resolution proposed by Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) declaring that the Bush tax cuts increased the deficit.

This was inane not only because there was no chance whatsoever of the resolution being accepted, but also because it was offered as an amendment to one of the budget process changes proposed by the House Budget Committee that, as mentioned above, got this year’s silly season off to such a rousing start.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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