"Baseline budgeting" is one of those Washington terms that sounds very dry and boring. In reality, baseline budgeting is one of the most sinister ways that politicians claim to cut spending when they are actually increasing spending. The Congressional Budget Office defines the baseline as a benchmark for measuring the budgetary effects of proposed changes in federal revenue or spending, with the assumption that current budgetary policies or current services are continued without change. The baseline includes automatic adjustments for inflation and anticipated increases in program participation. Baseline, or current services, budgeting, therefore builds automatic, future spending increases into Congress's budgetary forecasts.
Baseline budgeting tilts the budget process in favor of increased spending and taxes. For example, if an agency's budget is projected to grow by $100 million, but only grows by $75 million, according to baseline budgeting, that agency sustained a $25 million cut. That is analogous to a person who expects to gain 100 pounds only gaining 75 pounds, and taking credit for losing 25 pounds. The federal government is the only place this absurd logic is employed.
Politicians often like to have it both ways. Baseline budgeting gives politicians an opportunity to deceive taxpayers by allowing them to claim that they are holding the line on spending while providing more services.
Baseline budgeting seems like a technicality and should not be such a hotbed of contention, but every round of budget negotiations involves baseline budgeting with both sides of the aisle complaining that the other side is using the process to mask spending increases. Baseline budgeting is an issue that truly separates the deficit hawks from the budget chickens.
Eliminating the inflated budget baseline will force Congress to justify and account for increased spending instead of hiding behind automatic increases. Through commonsense accounting, taxpayers would learn that spending in Washington is not under control.