President’s Budget: Does it Matter?

It’s around this time of year – with the release of the President’s budget – that we start to get a lot of questions about what’s going to happen with Federal spending for the year.  The questions are quite natural given the amount of attention the release of the President’s budget generates and the enormous volume of pages it fills (i.e. this year the Appendix alone spans 1,400 pages).  It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the Constitution gives no formal role to the President in the federal budget process.  In fact, the Constitution vests the authority to “lay and collect taxes” and to authorize the withdrawal of funds from the Treasury exclusively in the U.S. Congress.

While Congress controls the power of the purse, for the past 100 years – since passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 – there has been a statutory role for the President in establishing a budget and presenting it to Congress.  For the past 30 years, Federal law has stipulated that the President is to submit the budget to Congress “on or after the first Monday in January but not later than the first Monday in February of each year” (we’ll save the discussion about whether they are submitted on time for another day).

If Congress controls the purse strings, then what’s the point of the President’s budget? 

First, it kicks off the Congressional budget process.  In exercising the power of the purse, Congress establishes a budget resolution, which is a broad revenue/spending framework (which is also the basis for budget enforcement) that also provides spending allocations to the Appropriations Committees.  The budget resolution can also include reconciliation instructions, which featured prominently in last year’s debates on the Build Back Better Act.

Second, the President’s budget is an overview of the President’s policy vision.  Often, that vision includes proposing significant changes to existing Federal programs.  With respect to agriculture, notably, the last two budget cycles broke with recent tradition which had proposed a litany of ways in which farm policy could be slashed to save money.  Last year’s budget was silent on the matter and this year is no different.  With that said, the budget does hint at other significant changes that could have a major impact on agriculture.  For example, the so-called Green Book –the Treasury Department’s explanation of this year’s revenue proposals – contemplates imposing capital gains at death.  The Agricultural & Food Policy Center (AFPC) reported last summer on the enormous impact that the elimination of stepped-up basis (or the imposition of transfer taxes) could have on agricultural producers.  While the President can propose changes, only Congress has the power to actually change the law.

Bottom line:  the President’s budget kicks off the budget process and signals the policy priorities of the Administration, but it’s Congress that ultimately controls the purse strings.

Fischer, Bart. “President’s Budget: Does it Matter?“. Southern Ag Today 2(14.4). March 31, 2022. Permalink