President Joe Biden will unveil a detailed budget proposal today that would spend a whopping $6 trillion next year “that would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II,” reported the New York Times, which got a first look at the proposal. Total spending would hit $8.3 trillion by the end of the decade, financed by huge tax hikes that would still leave annual deficits of $1.3 trillion per year. It’s something Republicans will loudly deplore, but that progressives will either applaud or find insufficient.
You could be forgiven for being confused and wondering how this document relates to the various “plans” Biden has already sent into the world, such as the American Rescue Plan, which was largely enacted on March 11. The simplest way to explain the Biden budget is that it is an optimistic estimate of what federal spending and revenues will amount to in the fiscal year if everything goes as the administration desires, like its jobs and families plans.
So like other presidential budget proposals before it, this is ultimately a wishlist that will not be voted upon in Congress. But the numbers, even for symbolic purposes, need to be big to accommodate the progressive initiatives Biden campaigned on — and that progressives in particular look to Democrats to enact as quickly as they can. That’s particularly true because the budget covers not just the next fiscal year but estimates for the ten “out years” that will follow.
So spending and taxes, and deficits and debt, will swell. For a certain kind of Republican who has already forgotten the red ink spilled by the Trump administration, it’s a joyous occasion for excoriating profligacy and indiscipline of every sort. Much of the talk about it will come from Republicans (and other fiscal scolds) who love big fat and entirely abstract numbers for spending and taxes that can be attacked without much discussion of the underlying policies, which are often very popular. AP’s headline for its budget story is: “Social spending, business tax hike drive $6T Biden budget.” “Social spending” isn’t popular unless you are a direct beneficiary of it, and “tax hikes” are always controversial until they become quite specific.
If the budget’s only symbolic, then when if ever do we see a real budget for fiscal year 2022? Indeed, what is the real federal budget? In truth, we won’t know what FY 2022 has cost and benefited taxpayers until it’s over and you can add up spending and revenues. By then, many things could have changed, including the economic conditions that affect revenue estimates; the proposals that Biden and his congressional allies choose to prioritize; and the political environment that affects prospects for passage and the consequences of success or failure. There is also the possibility that negotiations over a debt-limit increase required soon after the current suspension of the debt limit expires on July 31 could alter the budget outlook.
So no one should take anything in the Biden budget literally, or even that seriously. But it will be treated as hugely important by anyone objecting to its size or cost, or to anything that has been omitted.