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After budget resolution, the real work begins

The process of allocating taxpayer dollars starts in earnest as the 13 separate appropriations bills make their way through committees.

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President Barack Obama (r.) attends a budget meeting on Saturday, January 24.

Pete Souza/The White House

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It’s make-or-break, do-or-die, life-and-death, a battle so royal that even hyphenated clichés can’t do it justice!

What are we talking about? Washington’s annual struggle over the budget resolution, of course.

Every spring, the press suffuses with drama Congress’s consideration of the budget submitted by the president, turning it into the political equivalent of a heavyweight bout.

Will the White House get the money it wants? Will the president’s priorities be derailed? Can the Washington Nationals remember to run the bases counterclockwise?

OK, that last one was just a personal . But here’s what they’re not telling you: The budget vote isn’t that important.

Here’s the current state of play: Both the House and Senate already have approved their own versions of a $3.6 trillion federal budget. The two chambers still have to get together and meld these versions into a mutual plan.

Then they'll vote on it and declare victory. But that end result won't be binding. It won't be a law. It won't get signed by the president.

It’ll be more of a ... promise. It’s called a “budget resolution,” after all, and that second word is key. It’s as if Congress is saying that this year it will go to the gym more, call home every Sunday, and reduce the annual deficit to less than $600 billion within the next five years.

True, the budget plan isn’t completely irrelevant. It operates as a kind of annual top line beyond which department heads dare not go. It serves as a political marker, providing (or denying) a chief executive the appearance of momentum.

But the fact is that legal details of new programs – such as the expansion of healthcare that President Obama wants – will have to be set out in separate bills later in the year. Congress does not even pass a budget plan every year, though the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires it. As yet, no House speaker has been hauled away to the hoosegow in handcuffs.

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