In February, President Obama submitted his proposed fiscal 2013 budget of $3.67 trillion to Congress.
Do you know what's in the president's budget? Is it higher or lower than last year's? Which programs would get the most money, and which the least? How much would go to healthcare? Education? Environmental programs? The military? How much would be spent on interest on the federal debt? How is the spending plan affected by the Budget Control Act passed last year? And what's likely to happen to the president's proposed budget now that it's in the hands of legislators?
If the answers to those questions are not exactly rolling off your tongue, you're in good company. The federal budget is a dry, dense and complex concern that can be difficult for even the most ambitious, engaged citizen to unravel. And let's face it; many of us lack the time, energy or motivation to delve into something that can seem so distant from our daily lives.
"Right now, many Americans have a sense either that the federal budget doesn't matter to them, it doesn't affect their lives, or it matters but they have no way of changing anything," said Mattea Kramer, a senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project in Northampton.
But those are erroneous, and dangerous, assumptions. "We believe very much this stuff matters," Kramer said. "The decisions made in Washington affect our lives every day," whether we're seniors who get our healthcare through Medicare or college students paying tuition with Pell grants, homeowners who deduct our mortgage interest from our taxes or laid-off workers who rely on unemployment benefits to meet the bills.
Since 1983, the nonprofit National Priorities Project has been working to bring some much-needed transparency to the federal budget, giving people outside the Beltway the tools to understand not just where their tax dollars go, but what they can do to direct that flow. Last month, NPP released a book, A People's Guide to the Federal Budget, which brings much of that information together. And with Election Day just a few months away, the timing couldn't be better.
For a brief period starting in the mid-'90s, the federal government actually took on the job of educating the public about the budget.
Beginning in fiscal 1996, the Office of the President released, along with President Clinton's proposed spending plan, "A Citizen's Guide to the Federal Budget," which offered a general overview of how the budget process works. The government-issued budget guides stopped in 2002, under the second Bush White House, and they've not been resurrected by the Obama administration.
"It's now been a decade since the White House has put out a citizen's resource, a plain-language resource to what they're doing with our trillions of tax dollars," Kramer said. "It's sad. It's not the way it ought to be."
So last fall, she said, when a Northampton-based publisher, Interlink Books, approached NPP about turning its many online budget resources into a book, the organization jumped at the opportunity. Thus began a mad scramble to get the book—which includes the president's 2013 budget request, submitted just months ago—on the shelves in plenty of time for this fall's election.
Published in May, A People's Guide to the Federal Budget is dedicated to Greg Speeter, NPP's founder and long-time executive director, who died earlier this year. Kramer is the lead author of the book, which includes contributions by several other NPP staffers as well as a foreword by author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, whose works include the 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. A People's Guide also features cartoons by Tom Pappalardo, whose comic "The Optimist" runs in the Valley Advocate.
A People's Guide to the Federal Budget begins by making the case for why that budget does, or should, matter to everyday folks, outlining the many government programs and services that we rely on, be it paved streets and police protection in our communities, or veterans' benefits and Social Security checks.
The book cites a Cornell University study, released earlier this year, in which 1,400 Americans were asked if they'd "ever used a government social program." Fifty-seven percent of respondents answered "no." But, it turns out, when asked about 21 specific government programs—including Social Security, student loans, Medicaid and Medicare, mortgage-interest tax deductions, food stamps and welfare—96 percent of respondents confirmed that they had, indeed, used at least one of those programs at some point.
Federal spending also has a major effect on the overall economy; in fiscal 2011, the authors report, spending by the federal government—$3.73 trillion—accounted for a full one-quarter of the nation's total Gross Domestic Product.
A People's Guide takes a broad perspective on the budget process that will make it relevant for fiscal years to come, including, its authors hope, as a text in high school and college classrooms. The book includes a chapter on the history of the federal budget, from the creation of the Treasury Department through the establishment of key government social programs under FDR and LBJ to the Budget Control Act of 2011, passed in an effort to control the ballooning deficit. Other chapters address taxes and other sources of revenue and the federal debt.
The book also offers an explanation of the nuts-and-bolts behind the budget process, including the terminology. One distinction that often trips people up, Kramer noted: the difference between discretionary and mandatory spending. The former—which accounts for about one-third of total spending—is, essentially, the money that's in free play during each budget process; every year, the president presents his requests for how that money will be spent, and Congress appropriates it, or not. The military accounts for the largest portion of discretionary spending: $653 billion, or 57 percent, of the $1.15 trillion in discretionary spending in the president's proposed 2013 budget.
Mandatory spending, as its name suggests, is mandated by existing laws and includes funding of entitlement programs such as Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and Social Security. Of the $2.27 trillion in mandatory spending in Obama's 2013 budget, $818 billion—36 percent—would go to Medicare and other health programs; $751 billion, or 33 percent, to Social Security.
The chapter on Obama's 2013 budget offers clear, detailed information on the president's spending priorities and also addresses the political context in which the coming budget will be addressed. "[G]iven the recent track record of Congress—with lawmakers frequently using continuing resolutions [defined in the book as "a piece of legislation that temporarily extends funding for federal agencies, usually at the same levels appropriated in the previous year"] to avoid many of their usual budgeting responsibilities—and because it's an election year, many Washington insiders don't expect Congress to pass any budget at all in 2012," the authors write.
"Instead, many people expect that lawmakers will ignore the president's budget and instead will use continuing resolutions to fund the government through the November elections."
Now wait a minute, a reader might, reasonably, say. Here I've read all the way to Chapter 8, learned the lingo and pored over the graphs, and now you tell me that Congress probably won't even act on the president's budget, at least not until members have squeezed their way past Election Day? If the government itself can't be counted on to pass a budget, does it even matter if the little people like me are paying attention?
In a word: yes. Or, in 10 words, as the authors write, "The U.S. Constitution has the answer: you own the government."
And it's especially important that citizens start exercising their ownership privileges right now. Recent history—with threatened government shutdowns and budget stalemates and partisan bickering—and pending events—the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts at the end of the year; $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts that are due to go into effect in January under the Budget Control Act—have created a sort of federal-budget perfect storm.
Then there's the increasingly worrisome role that corporate money plays in our government—a role that's unlikely to diminish any time soon, given the Supreme Court's ruling last week affirming the 2010 Citizens United decision that lifted campaign spending limits on corporations and unions. In a section on the influence of corporate lobbying on public policy, A People's Guide cites figures from the Center for Responsive Politics that showed there were 12,242 registered lobbyists in Washington last year. That's 24 lobbyists for every member of the House and Senate. "It's much easier for lawmakers to hear the concerns of 24 lobbyists than the concerns of their every constituent," the authors note.
"Folks running for federal office this year will have the power to make long-term decisions ... with huge implications," Kramer said. "The people we elect in 2012 will have some pretty big opportunities to shape spending priorities for years to come. We hope this book will be a resource to folks heading to the polls."
Indeed, the final chapter of A People's Guide is titled, quite simply, "Take Action," and it urges its newly minted budget-expert readers to put their knowledge to use: "As some wise person once said, 'If you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu.' If you don't speak up about where you want your tax dollars spent, others gladly will speak up for you—and you might not like what they have to say."
The book, Kramer says, is written for all citizens concerned about federal spending priorities—from Tea Partiers to Occupiers and everyone in between—and aims to be a resource "to move people from feeling disconnected, ineffectual, confused, to a new place where more Americans feel they are active decision makers." Once average people understand the budget process, they're better able to speak up, to hold lawmakers accountable for their decisions and to get involved in bigger efforts to make change—the underlying goal of the National Priorities Project's work.
"That's why we exist," Kramer said. "It's not just to sit in a room and crunch numbers. We want to empower people to take action. ...
"We'd love to work ourselves out of a job," she added, "and encourage our federal government to be so transparent that we don't need to exist."