Saturday 03 Dec 2016

The 2-year Budget Cycle
Tim Sexton

None, save the insane, would consider the current federal US budget process as a perfect system, but the concerted effort to move away from the annual budget cycle¬ł to a biennial, may not sole current problems.

Of the arguments made in support of a biennial budget cycle, four dominate the discussion. The suggestion is that a biennial cycle would streamline the workings of government. This, in turn, would in turn result in more time for all concerned to focus on other business.

Another consideration is the biennial cycle would lessen the often-ugly political maneuverings that goes on behind the scenes.

One of the most innovative arguments is that a biennial system would give government agencies more time for analysis and management; less time spent preparing budget documents allows more time for consideration of needs and wants.

Finally, a change in the budget cycle would somehow increase the budgetary certainty of funded agencies. Reducing the demands of the budgetary process would allow agencies to focus mandate fulfillment, for example.

This is all right in theory, but events of the recent past don't exactly fill one with confidence that any of these would play out in the cold, harsh light of reality among the bureaucrats.

Ready evidence doesn't necessarily suggest that, relieved of the annual budget process, lawmakers would spend newly available time debating other issues. The congressional process, for example, moves with the budget cycle. Would expanding the budget cycle leave more time for other matters? Would expanding the budget cycle simply lengthen the congressional cycle?

Take the past few months. When congress had time away from the budget, what ideas grabbed attention? Was there productive debate on the rising cost of health care, the solvency of Social Security or corruption reform?

The answer is no. Given a chance to consider the most pressing needs facing the country, congress men and women decided to focus on purely politically motivated issues, such as gay marriage, flag burning and immigration from Mexican. This may tell us a lot more about congress than election year debates.

Will moving to a biennial system lead to more congressional oversight of spending or should it. Keeping spending in the news means what little oversight there is can be a valuable tool in revealing waste. Give a politician two years go keep his pork barrel projects under wraps and you think he or she won't take advantage. Partisan political wrangling is the method of choice for dealing with problems, today. There's nothing in the history of the last decade that could possibly lead anyone to expect that spending less time on the budgetary process would lead to addressing genuinely great and non-politically motivated issues.

In the past, proponents of a biennial budget liked to use the example of how the process might improve the efficiency of the Defense of Department (DOD). There are other ways to spend the portion of the DOD budget now devoted to developing the annual budget. This example reinforces the idea that a two-year process would increase budgetary certainty and afford agencies enough time to provide a better analysis of their needs.

A worse example is unimaginable. The Defense Department, under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, represents the single worst possible argument possible for setting up an extended budget cycle. The uncertain analysis of annual budget forecasts by the Defense Department, just two years ago, was almost criminally inadequate to service the funding needs of the Department. One can only imagine how much worse it would be if the DOD had forecast a budget two years into the future.

The problem is this: the farther budget plans reach into the future, the more likely those plans are to miscalculate need. Proponents say a system redesign, with a built-in allowance for added or emergency spending, would do the trick. Built in allowances for the unexpected (sic) doesn't undermine the notion that a two-year process would reduce political maneuverings, which some think it does.

Misgiving about the future is at an all-time high. This seems part of the price of technology and progress. Given this context, government has no choice but to under estimate future need. The unavoidable need for emergency spending will result in even more partisan maneuverings and even less time to decide.

A federal budget free of political reality could cycle over one, two or more years. Changing to a two-year cycle won't solve the problem of politics. Unfortunately, this problem extends from the congress to funded agencies fighting for ever-larger pieces of the pie to the White House.

Tim Sexton is a writer, living in Florida, at last report.

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