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Barack & the Budget: Promises & Process

In his acceptance speech, Senator Obama promised to go over the budget line by line to weed out federal spending. This is the typical kind of promise Presidential candidates make. But actually doing so would be incredibly irresponsible. The budget is over 1300 pages long. Assume it takes an hour to go over a page (not unrealistic because many of the pages would require extensive background information and meetings) and that the President puts in a 10 hour day (they put in longer days, but he will also need to get his national security briefings and receive foreign dignitaries etc.) Actually going over the budget would take 130 working days, or more than one third of his time in office. Many of these efforts would require lobbying and log-trading on with Congress and many of the victories would be Pyrrhic. In the dangerous world we live in, would saving $1.5 million dollars by scaling down a new tourist center in Akron be worth hours of the President’s time?

Of course, Obama’s promise was just rhetoric. He won’t really do this, a President’s most valuable resource is his time and, like every President before him, he will pick his fights carefully. Battles over small-scale pork-barrel projects will not be getting priority.

Budget Review Process

In fact, there is already an extensive budget review process, through the all-powerful Office of Management and Budget. In the Bush administration, cabinet members could appeal OMB decisions to the budget review board, chaired by —- Vice President Cheney.

This is the only formal power-base Cheney possessed. Everything else was contingent on his relationship with the President. There are two interesting aspects to this role.

First, Cheney got his teeth in the Ford Administration. Vice President Rockefeller hoped to “run” domestic policy and was the Vice Chair (the President was chair) of the Domestic Policy Council. Instead of being a power-base, it was an enormous drain on Rockefeller’s energy and it turned Rockefeller into a lightning rod in the policy wars. Cheney no doubt took the lesson that a formal, high-profile VP role had major costs. Instead, Cheney exercised influence through a low-profile, little noticed insider position.

It also illustrates the limits of Cheney’s influence. Cheney is a small government, fiscal conservative. Big budget expenditures like the drug program are not Cheney initiatives – they came from the President. At the budget review board, Cheney could have substantial influence on the margins – but the broad course (as always) is set by the President. The story of Cheney’s impact on the broader course has yet to be told.

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  1. I didn’t know you have a political blog, too. This is brilliant! I am going to bookmark it and also send the link to my office computer. –Kelly Yip


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