The Budget Deal: A Repeat Phenomenon?

     After weeks of legislative posturing, stalemate, and public debate, Congress and the President finally reached a deal on the federal budget and spending limit. The weeks-long impasse shone a bright spotlight on the budget-making process. As ordinary Americans watched the entire episode unfold, scholars and practitioners watched with a mix of awe and incredulity at the expected eruption.  As Matt Andrews had pointed out in an article in the May/April issue of Public Administration Review:

“Federal budgeting challenges reflect embedded ways of thinking about government in the United States. Beliefs embedded in doctrines, principles, and other social scripts entrench ideas, practices, and rules about separated powers, limited government, assertive and dispersed political competition, exceptionalism, and the American dream. The combination of such “logics” generates an ambiguous and opportunistic budgeting environment that is conducive to unsustainable spending behavior.”

Andrews in a poignant and well-researched article notes the need for more voter education and the importance of voter engagement on budgetary issues.

“Future solutions lie in citizens demanding better coordination and compromise between Congress and the president. It is doubtful whether this will be achieved through improving voter education on budgetary issues, however.”

Andrews borrows from historical studies on budgeting to show the weak and poor logic that feeds and accompanies federal budgeting, a point that rings true in the wake of the recent budget melee. Even states faced their own fears as the deadline drew near and state administrators remained uncertain about funding and the future. As the PA Times Online reported, while a deal was reached several states still expects major cuts to their funding and programs.

While the budget process is a common and central fact of life for many public servants, it is a management tool that is constantly under the microscope from scholars and practitioners alike. Most recently ASPA’s Public Administration Review highlighted this discussion as it relates to performance based budgeting, particularly in use at the state level.

Most welcome the compromise between Congress and the President, but as Andrews noted it is unlikely to mean the end of future similar situations.

“Crisis is needed to force attention on such ambiguity and to allow a path to solution. Past mini-crises have led to temporary balancing acts involving short-lived congressional and executive compromise. A more permanent fix is required, however, to clarify the illogical situation that currently exists. It seems that the appetite for ambiguity now dominates the will for radical change. The potential for game-changing crisis is high, however, and such crisis will create opportunities for transformational reform.”

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