Presidential Budgets Can Set Election-Year Tone

President Bush is set to unveil the final annual budget proposal of his two-term administration. History shows that chief executives who are on their way out can still use the budget to influence the election-year political debate.

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As the economy looms large ahead of Super Tuesday, President Bush releases his eighth and final budget today. Presidents in their eighth year typically have a hard time attracting attention to their budgets, with so much attention on the race to control the next White House. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, a president's last budget can still influence the debate.

PAM FESSLER: When President Clinton announced his final budget in 2000, he was lucky enough to be dealing with a huge surplus. And he offered some pretty big promises with his $1.8 trillion spending plan.

President BILL CLINTON: It helps us move toward an America where every child starts school ready to learn and graduates ready to succeed, where parents are able to succeed at home and work and no child is raised in poverty, where we meet the challenge of the aging of America, where we provide healthcare to all, where we make America the safest big country on Earth.

FESSLER: And so on and so on. But here's how congressional Republicans responded to the president's call for more spending.

Mr. JOHN KASICH (Republican, Ohio): I think this document is a fantasy. As far as I'm concerned, it is dead on arrival. It was dead before it got here.

FESSLER: That was then House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich. Here's his Senate counterpart Pete Domenici.

Mr. PETE DOMENICI (Democrat, New Mexico): I think it's an election document, a potential help some friends of Bill Clinton get elected to public office this next time.

FESSLER: But that was then. Eleven months later Congress had spent $10 billion more than the president had asked for. In an election year it was hard for even fiscally conservative Republicans to abandon some popular spending. Still, Stan Collander, a budget expert with Qorvis Communications in Washington, says there's only so much impact a president in his eighth year can have.

Mr. STAN COLLANDER (Qorvis Communications): Basically, everything the president has wanted to propose has already been proposed once, twice, and sometimes they become perennials that have been rejected more than once by Congress. So that in most cases there are very few new ideas in the president's last budget because there are just no new ideas within the administration.

FESSLER: He says the budget proposal is more like a big speech.

Mr. COLLANDER: It's just out there. Think of it like a campaign platform. And some of what this president's going to propose undoubtedly will be proposed to help Republicans running for office.

FESSLER: Just as President Clinton's last budget was designed to help his vice president, Al Gore. But there are other ways a final budget can be used, says James Miller. He served as President's Reagan's budget director during his last three years in office. Miller says the budget is also a message from the White House to the rest of the administration that there's still a year to go, so stick with the program.

Mr. JAMES MILLER (Budget Expert): As you get into last year, the political appointees begin to think about life after and they tend to lose focus. And a president needs to have them focus on the work at hand. The second thing a president can do is to explain to the American people how things have developed over the past eight years and to show that in fact it made some sense; there was a method in the madness.

President RONALD REAGAN: Today I'm sending our fiscal year 1989 budget to the Congress. This budget fits within the second year of the bipartisan budget agreement.

FESSLER: President Reagan had it relatively easy. His eighth budget came just months after he'd reached agreement with Congress on a two-year deficit reduction plan. Most of the battles had already been fought. But even if the big numbers are agreed upon, there are always fights over the details, and Alan Schick, a budget expert at the University of Maryland, says it's too soon to count President Bush out. Last year he was able to control some spending with veto threats, and he could do the same again this year. Schick says calling any budget dead on arrival misses the point, that it's really the opening bid in a year-long negotiation.

Dr. ALLEN SCHICK (University of Maryland): The president knows it. Consequently he does not necessarily put his final preferences on the table. The more unrealistic the president is in his budget, the better out he comes out at the end of the process with negotiations.

FESSLER: So keep that in mind when and if you look at President Bush's new $3 trillion budget. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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