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Missing From Biden’s Budget: His Signature Policy Agenda

Administrations normally detail their biggest policy dreams in their annual budgets. The Biden administration tucked its into the footnotes instead.

Months after congressional talks stalled on the president’s expansive climate and social safety net bill known as Build Back Better, the White House simply declined to include its fine print in its annual budget proposal that was released on Monday.

The budget included a slew of smaller policy specifics, including a new minimum tax for the very wealthy; a change to the way the government pays for vaccines for adults; and new money to ensure clean drinking water. But it did not include the key provisions in Build Back Better — the legislation that President Biden has spent much of his time in office promoting.

White House budgets are always largely symbolic documents, unlikely to become law without substantial changes from Congress. But without details about many of Mr. Biden’s top priorities, the budget this year is unusually unhelpful in even understanding the administration’s budgetary goals.

“Ironically, what you are seeing in the budget is things that are not going to happen,” said Marc Goldwein, the senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “And what you are not seeing are things that possibly are going to happen.”

In a call with reporters on Monday, Shalanda Young, the White House budget director, said the administration had left out the specifics to help the continuing congressional negotiations on the package.

“I understand their political calculus, but it makes their budget not a very useful document for understanding their priorities,” Mr. Goldwein said.

Such vagueness is not utterly without precedent, but the scope of the omissions this year is unusual.

During the Obama administration’s first year in office, as it was developing the health care proposal that would become the Affordable Care Act, it also skipped including key policy details from its budget tables. Similarly, the Trump administration’s first budget offered scant specifics about its ambitions for overhauling the tax code, a priority that came to fruition later that year.

But both of those omissions occurred in the administrations’ early months, before White House policy officials or congressional negotiators had time to develop the finer points. Mr. Biden’s domestic policy agenda, in contrast, has been the subject of extensive white papers, policy speeches and legislative text — including a bill that passed the House in November.

The tax overhaul and Obamacare were major projects for those administrations, but they did not represent the range of their domestic ambitions in quite the way that Build Back Better does for the Biden White House.

The Biden administration’s plan, drawn up as a single piece of legislation that could pass through a special process without requiring Republican votes, included a range of tax, social welfare and climate policy ideas, rolling in much of Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign agenda. Depending on the details, the proposal is likely to increase both spending and revenues by $1 trillion or more over a decade.

And while the Trump budget office declined to specify tax details in 2017, it did commit to including substantial cuts to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act as part of its plan to “repeal and replace” the health law.

Ironically, the Biden administration’s budget does include proposals, like an increase to the corporate tax rate, that lawmakers have already trimmed from the legislation in their recent negotiations.

Last year’s budget featured more of Mr. Biden’s domestic policy plan, detailing programs to combat climate change and expand child care, for example, that did become a part of the Build Back Better proposal.

This year, the agenda was briefly described in broad terms in the budget’s introductory text. But its role in the document’s detailed breakdowns was limited to footnotes in the summary tables and a line item with no corresponding dollar amount. That budget line allows for unlimited spending and unlimited revenue related to the legislation, so long as it does not increase the federal deficit.

The approach gives the White House maneuvering room to negotiate over the details of the package. The legislation was unable to advance in the Senate last year, and any final version will involve painful negotiations among lawmakers. White House officials may not have wanted to signal that they still endorse the whole package when they know it cannot pass — and they may not have wanted to pick and choose among programs without congressional input.

The result is a document that excludes any such choices or numbers.

“We used to say on the Hill that the president’s budget with the good thick appendix would make a good doorstopper,” said G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who was once a top Republican budget staff member in the Senate. Still, he said, he has always considered the president’s budget important for establishing aspirations.

In this case, the budgetary aspiration may be to keep legislative negotiating alive.

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