President Obama released his 2013 budget proposal on Monday. It proposes a 0.2 percent increase in spending, $1.5 trillion in new revenue (primarily from letting tax cuts for those making more than $250 thousand expire), and a $1.33 trillion deficit. The proposed spending would pay for (among other things) $350 billion in job creation measure, $850 million in Race to the Top education funding, $141 billion in non-defense R&D, and $476 billion in infrastructure investment. Meanwhile, it is the first budget to operate under the Budget Control Act that mandates $1 trillion of cuts in discretionary spending. Pentagon and health care spending would see decreases of $260 billion over five years and $360 billion over ten years, respectively.
But with a divided government, increasing partisanship, and a looming election, it is widely understood that this budget has no real chance of actually becoming law. It is, rather, a statement of priorities—a political document that sets out a roadmap for the 2012 election and highlights competing visions for the future. Is this a bad thing? Should we expect budget proposals to be actionable pieces of legislation rather than political documents?
Obama’s previous efforts to craft legislation that would draw support from Republicans—from the structure of the ACA to placing entitlement cuts on the table in the near-disastrous decision to tie the debt ceiling negotiations to spending cuts, to the creation of the Supercommittee that tried to reduce the deficit with far more spending cuts than revenue increases—have not led to any bipartisan support. By this point, it seems clear that this is not because Obama is unwilling to negotiate.
Given this dynamic, what would Obama or the American people gain by repeating the process of proposing legislation that plays for Republican votes only to have it rejected? While it may appear unseemly to propose a budget that is primarily political, perhaps it is the only option in the current climate. And if, unlike earlier attempts at concessions, the budget can highlight rather than obscure the differences in priorities for Democrats and Republicans, both sides might feel more pressure from their constituents to come together after the election to compromise. So in a strange way, this more ambitious, less conciliatory budget might make voters more aware of gridlock and create a space for it to be defused.