Budgets and Democracy

UC Berkeley Economics Professor Brad DeLong in his blog has a recurrent item, “Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps?” One of today’s posts, “Where Is the Budget Reporting?” nominally falls in that category, but points to something more serious.

DeLong cites Stan Collender’s lament that no one, really no one, is covering the federal budget this year:

Like many Washington-based analysts, I generally believe that every word I utter not only is quotable but should be quoted. That’s why this time of year is usually so ego fulfilling: the submission of the president’s budget to Congress generally means I get calls from lots of people who want to hear what I have to say. That didn’t happen this year…. At first I thought it was me…. I assumed that… I was over the hill….

But two days after the president’s budget had been sent to Congress, at an informal monthly breakfast of budget analysts I’ve been attending for more than two decades, I found out that virtually everyone else who is usually quoted heavily this time of year also wasn’t getting called. Because of this, the breakfast partly turned into a support group…. It was therapeutic….

It turns out that the reason for this change is actually quite simple: most major media outlets have decided that the budget is not much of a story this year and are not covering it….

This is yet another nail in the coffin of our democracy. The one way Congress might be able to rein in Bush is via its power to withhold approval of the budget, or at least make him and his underlings squirm a bit. But no, even though it’s the dead of winter and there are no major sports playoffs to compete for attention, the media assumes the public doesn’t care. And they may well be right.

But this lack of press attention degrades one of the key checks and balances of our democracy. One has to wonder if the Republicans somehow orchestrated this turn of events, because it certainly works in their interest. If the Democrats want to oppose anything in the budget, they are going to have to make even more noise to get the press to wake up, and to get any credit for whatever victory they achieve.

Or put it another way, it reduces the payoff for the Democrats to fight the president’s budget.

It also makes it much easier for the Republicans to practice revisionist or distorted history. In the next election, they can make misleading or flat out untrue claims about the budget. Not only will the public at large have no memory of what happened, since it wasn’t on TV or in the press, but it will even be more difficult for them to find the information on the Internet (there might be wonky analyses, but few neutral lay reports).

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