The Games of the 2021 Budget Olympiad

Weekly WastebasketThe Games of the 2021 Budget OlympiadBudgets are statements about priorities.

Budget & Tax,  | Weekly Wastebasket
Feb 7, 2020  | 4 min read | Print Article

Get your snacks, stretch your limbs, and strap in, for next week begins the budget nerd Olympics! On Monday the President’s Budget Request fiscal year 2021 will be released. All at once, several tomes made up of thousands of pages outlining the executive branch’s priorities, proposals, for the next fiscal year and beyond are unveiled in an often-understated opening ceremony.

We will comb through those pages trying to elicit not just what the White House wants us to know, but to read between the lines. We’ll find out what is missing, what they seek to change from current law or what’s changed compared to previous proposals – in other words figure out the true priorities. (Be sure to follow along with our analysis – it will be live Monday shortly after the budget is released.)

Everyone talks about how much this agency or this department got. Headlines are made by new policy proposals or increases and decreases. In reality, budgets are statements about priorities. Where does this administration want to allocate resources? What type of games are they playing with Congress (e.g. underfund a known Congressional priority to pay for an administration priority in hope that you’ll get both)? What do they value and what do they not?

One thing that shouldn’t be a guessing game is the topline level of discretionary funding. That was resolved by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019.

In FY2021 defense discretionary gets $671.5 billion. That’s an increase of $5 billion over last year and more than $80 billion more than the Pentagon would have received under previous budget caps. We would note the cap level was $40 billion more than the Pentagon got in FY2017, just a few years ago. So, it was hardly a low ball.

Non-defense discretionary gets $626.5 billion. That’s an increase of $5 billion over last year and more than $70 billion more than these agencies and programs would have received under previous budget caps. Again, we note the cap level was $36 billion more than they got in FY2017.

You will often hear that a President’s Budget Request is dead on arrival. Even when one or both of the chambers are controlled by the same party. This budget is deader than most.

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Budgets coming from presidents in the final year of their term often get an epic side eye. While House and Senate appropriators will likely go through the motions of drafting and marking up bills, even get some through their respective chambers, the final action won’t come until after the election. That’s how it works. The outcome of the election will, not surprisingly, have a significant impact on the 2021 federal budget. Whoever feels their leverage has increased will exercise that leverage. A re-elected president? A big gain or loss in numbers of seats for one party? A new president? Those factors will go a long way in determining whether federal agencies learn their FY2021 spending levels in the lame duck post-election session or have to wait for a new Congress a third of the way through the fiscal year.

But don’t worry, the end game won’t be on our minds Monday. It will be grabbing a doughnut and (many cups of) coffee and putting on our green eye-shades while wading through reams of charts and information. The better to crunch numbers and provide pure gold analysis for lawmakers, the press, and taxpayers. Be sure to check it out.