Dead on Arrival (Updated)—David Frum
I'm going to guess it was doctor shows on TV that introduced the acronym "DOA" into general American speech. The phrase began to be applied to presidential budgets in the middle Reagan years, and now it's making a resurgence with President Obama's election-season 2013 budget.
But the patient that is most sick is not any one particular budget. It's the way America does budgeting. If we're going to understand why the American fiscal system seems now to be breaking down, maybe it would be helpful to start by recalling how that system functioned when it did function.
For the first 130 years or so of the republic's life, the United States did not budget in any meaningful way at all. Congress appropriated funds, and whatever those appropriations totaled over the course of the year was that year's budget.
This ramshackle method of procedure endured through the First World War, incredibly enough.
Through the early 20th century, Progressives urged the adoption of some kind of system whereby spending might be announced in advance, a practice instituted in Great Britain by William Gladstone in the 1850s.
Not until 1921 did the United States institute anything we'd today call "budgeting." That year's Budget and Accounting Act created the Bureau of the Budget, enabling the president at last to submit his requests to Congress in a coherent whole. It created at the same time the General Accounting Office, expanding presidential power to check and enforce that the requested funds were spent as intended.
The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 is a law whose title almost commands the eyes to close, yet at the time it represented a revolution in American governance - a revolution only made possible by the smashing Republican election victories of 1918 and 1920.
Budgeting inescapably enhanced the power of the executive against the legislative branches—and as a party that won only 4 of the 14 presidential elections between 1868 and 1920, Democrats felt considerably reluctance to see presidential power enhanced. Republicans on the other hand coalesced around budgeting: progressive Republicans liked the idea as a way to rationalize government; conservative Republicans liked the idea as a way to reduce government.
With a majority in the House of 302 to 131, and in the Senate of 59-37, Republicans could at last carry the day.
But passing a budgeting law was only the first step toward modern budgeting. It's no good submitting a budget if Congress ignores it. So the Republicans of the 1920s instituted reforms to streamline Congress and suppress obstructionism. They radically reduced the number of congressional committees, especially Senate committees. They strengthened committee chairs against committee members. Already in 1917, a coalition of progressive Republicans and Democrats had forced through the Senate's first cloture rule—until then, the Senate had no anti-filibuster defenses at all.
It was this combination of enhanced presidential power and also greater concentration of power within the Congress that allowed modern budgeting to begin—and that sustained the budget process into the middle 1970s.
Budgeting has however come increasingly unraveled since the mid-1970s, as Congress has asserted itself more and more against the president and as committee chairs have lost power within the Congress.
The more distributed power becomes within Congress, the less accountable Congress becomes as an institution—because of course nobody except a few adept lobbyists knows whom to call to account.
The failure of US budgeting is a failure of budgeting institutions. Yes of course voters want contradictory things. There are tens of millions of them after all. It's the job of political institutions to bring wishes into alignment with resources, ends with means. Budget deficits measure the failure to achieve that alignment, and persistent deficits over a long period of years—including many years of normal economic growth - indicates institutional failure.
Correcting that failure will require new rules.
A lot of what made the old budgeting system work—the system of 1921-1974—was a set of unwritten norms and conventions. To restore a workable budget system, Americans may need to enact into law and rule what was formerly taken for granted:
We have to restore budgeting primacy to the presidency, while developing requirements for budget balance over the business cycle;
We have to reduce the number of political actors in Congress who can amend budgets, especially in ways that increase spending or reduce revenues;
We have to raise the visibility of those actors and find ways to hold them more broadly responsible to their party leaderships and the public.
For 2 generations we have sought to make governmental power more widely distributed, more subject to review, and more transparent. That big project has had perverse results: in trying to stop the next Robert Moses, we empowered Washington lobbyists instead.
What's needed is effective government, and effective government is executive government, subject to legislative review that can in turn be readily reviewed by the public.
No president's budget should ever be dead on arrival. He should be able to force votes on his original proposal—and those members of Congress who oppose a budget proposal should have to oppose it in ways that expose their own counter proposals to public debate.
In this sense, Paul Ryan is doing the right thing, whatever the substantive merits of his proposals.
If we're to make a success of the coming era of budget retrenchment, we need first to make the institutions of budgeting work again.