Sep 19, 2007

FY 2009 Budget Decisions Coming Soon

The Social Security Administration must release its Fiscal Year (FY) operating budget request for FY 2009 (which begins on October 1, 2008) in early 2008. Unlike all other agencies, Social Security is not only allowed, but required, to release its own budget request directly to Congress and the American people. The White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) makes its own budget recommendation for Social Security, but cannot censor the release of Social Securitys' own budget request.

For FY 2008, the Social Security Administration, then headed by outgoing Commissioner Jo Annne Barnhart, asked for far more than what was in the OMB budget. As soon as he came on board, Michael Astrue, the current Commissioner of Social Security, disavowed his own agency's budget request, repeatedly telling a somewhat skeptical Congress that he was asking only for the lower OMB budget for his agency.

There is some justification for Astrue's action. President Bush has threatened to veto any budget bill that is greater than the OMB proposed budget. There is enough Republican support for Bush to prevent a veto override. Thus, by asking only for the OMB budget, Astrue was trying to prevent a prolonged budget struggle, not that Astrue's action mattered, since it appears likely that there will be a prolonged struggle over the FY 2008 budget anyway, although the dispute has more to do with other agencies whose budgets are included in the same bill.

Unlike the FY 2008 budget, President Bush's power over the FY 2009 budget is almost non-existent. He can veto anything that Congress passes for FY 2009, but Bush will be out of office long before the end of FY 2009. Congress can easily pass continuing funding resolutions to keep the government going until Bush leaves office and then pass a budget in early 2009 which Bush cannot influence.

This leaves the question of what Michael Astrue will do about the FY 2009 budget. Will he be a loyal Republican operative and refuse to ask for a penny more than the OMB is willing to allow, thus proving that he lacks any independence from the White House, or does he ask for what he really thinks the agency needs, which we can be sure is much more than OMB will recommend? Astrue's budget recommendation makes far more difference with Bush a lame duck. An agency is unlikely to get more money than it asks for.

I do not believe that I am jumping the gun by asking about the FY 2009 budget. My understanding is that agencies are required to provide OMB with their budget requests by mid-September of each year. OMB then gives each agency a "passback" showing what they will allow. Astrue must then decide either to go public with what his agency really needs or buckle under and be a good Republican operative and tell the world that all his agency needs is what OMB has allowed. See Budget Analyst for a much more complete description of the budget process, although Social Security has a unique situation not described there.

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