Poll: How Would You Fix the Failing Budget Process?

Published Mar 4, 2014. By Michael O'Connell. In Federal News Radio.

As part of our special report, Now or Never: Ideas To Save the Failing Budget Process, Federal News Radio asked eight experts for their thoughts on how to to fix the failing system.

Their ideas can be found in their individual columns on our special report page.

We also asked members of the Association of Government Accounts (AGA) for their ideas on how to fix the budget process.

The thousands of words our experts contributed in their columns touched on a number of subjects, but the most used words and phrases helped to form the word cloud below, with "budget," "spending," "federal" and "Congress" being the most prominent.

While this image identifies the most-used words, it doesn't capture the phrases that sum up the ideas these experts professed for solving the failing budget process.

Below you'll find a summary of the different ideas the experts suggested, as well as select quotes from AGA members.

Which ideas do you think are the most valuable when it comes to fixing the federal government's flawed budget process? Let us know by taking our informal online poll.

David Walker, former comptroller general, and founder and CEO of Comeback America Initiative proposed establishing a biennial budgeting and appropriations process.

"This won't guarantee timely action but it will free up time for the Congress to focus more attention on the oversight and authorization processes," he said.

Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) introduced a biennial budgeting bill, which recently passed the House Budget Committee. He agreed with Walker that a biennial budgeting system would create greater oversight.

"Instead of forcing agencies to spend all of their time bureaucratically researching, planning, and submitting budget plans for the upcoming fiscal year, biennial budgeting creates set times for departments to submit their budget plans, and dedicates the rest of the time to actually governing," he said. "And instead of encouraging agencies to use funds wastefully at the end of the year simply so they don't risk having a smaller budget the next year, agencies would have a longer time window to make effective, necessary spending decisions."

While the government is getting better at anticipating changes in the future, it doesn't yet do a good job of reviewing what it continues to produce, but no longer delivers value. If there was a systematic method for offices to conduct an "environmental scan" prior to the development of out-year budgets, agencies could potentially identify offsets to fund important new initiatives, rather than arbitrarily cutting staff, travel, and other costs.

— Kathleen Scully, Former Budget Officer, AGA member

In addition to biennial budgeting, Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, suggested the government commit to stable funding for capital investments.

"Today, investment appropriations such as infrastructure construction or aircraft production can be spent over several years, since the government (like someone building a house) wants the leverage of future payments to use with the contractor," he said. "This works well if the project is completely funded in one year's budget. Big projects from ships to spacecraft, however, require funds from several consecutive budgets because they are expensive relative to the size of the sponsoring agency's annual budget. This makes the schedule and cost of the program very dependent on annual appropriations being completed on time and the amount being close to what was planned."

The federal budget process takes too long. Rather than the current lengthy (roughly 21 month) executive branch formulation and congressional review process, the entire formulation and review process should be completed much more quickly during the last 6 months of the fiscal year. While such a significant reduction of the process might appear daunting to many current process participants, the benefits from such a more focused, timely, decisive, strategic budget formulation/review process would allow agencies (and the Congress) to focus their energies on the execution/oversight of the budget/financial plan and the related mission results and intended societal benefits.

— Anonymous, AGA member

Diana Urban, a State of Connecticut Representative, floated the idea of Results-Based Accountability, in which a "quality-of-life result" is identified and guidelines are set to achieve that result.

"It is a two-step process that is based on simple language that can be understood by the average 'joe' on the street," she said. "However, it does offer a structure that allows for a meaningful discussion on the ends we are trying to achieve and if we are getting close to achieving those ends."

Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said opportunities exist for government to save costs by improving how agencies manage technology, processes and data.

"Increasingly, agencies are using analytics to predict and prevent problems that drain time and resources, such as identifying improper pay­ments in advance rather than stopping them after the fact," he said. "Applying analytics to administrative data sets can also help to determine the cost-effectiveness of alternative interventions."

The budget process requires more than mere annual review with dull deadlines and dismal repercussions. Like the most successful companies of our world, the funding lifeline of providing goods and government services should be treated with ongoing attention and options to strategically maneuver. Budgeted baselines should be entirely justified and/or earned while a supplemental form of funding should be discretionary for each government-funding source beyond the legally-mandated promises the government has created for the taxpayers. This combined approach allows for minimal operations and cash flow flexibility. Pentagon employee

— Pentagon employee, AGA member

Robert L. Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition, said the government should adhere to pay-as-you-go rules for the expansion of entitlements and tax cuts. He also proposed setting long-term approach to revenue targets.

"Long-term targets for revenues and outlays by major spending category should be established as part of the annual budget resolution," he said. "Congress should note how major legislative proposals that are assumed in the resolution would affect these targets — and how the targets differ, if at all, from current-law projections by the Congressional Budget Office."

David Wessel, director of The Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, Brookings Institution, said that the root of the problem isn't the budget process itself, it's that the American public wants more services from the government than it's willing to pay for through taxes.

Congress yields the power of the purse yet has consistently shown a degree of stewardship abuse. As awesome as the idea may seem, perhaps each house (House and Senate) should hold complete power of government funding for each year or two-year segment of the cycle, with Presidential approval. This may increase the speed of the process for budget development, mark-ups, and Presidential submission allowing each house to bear complete responsibility for the project on a rotating basis.

— Defense Department employee, AGA member

"The challenge is to rethink the budget process and the presentation of the budget so that it is more likely to produce a durable consensus among a significant number of Democrats and Republicans and promote better public understanding of the fiscal choices the nation faces," he said.

One of Wessel's suggestions is for presidential candidates to build their campaign budgets around a common baseline, such as the Congressional Budget Office's 10- year projection of current budget policies.

"This would give candidates an incentive to avoid outlandish promises and might just help the public understand that whatever the right target for deficits and debt, cutting foreign aid — roughly 1 percent of all federal spending — isn't going to get us there," he said.