By: Steve Redburn
Three years ago, a group of people steeped in the federal government’s budget process began meeting regularly to explore ways to improve the process. Discussions were led by Stuart Butler, Paul Posner, and Maya MacGuineas. Now calling itself the National Budgeting Roundtable and with support from the Hewlett Foundation, the group continues its monthly meetings at the Brookings Institution to develop and critique fresh approaches that could lead to better budget decisions. In addition to developing a set of new reform ideas, they have debated the question of political strategy – of how to align reforms with the political needs of leaders and be ready to seize opportunities for reform whenever they may arise.
Many of those participating in the deliberations are fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration. In addition to MacGuineas and Posner, these include former budget directors Alice Rivlin, Rudy Penner, Robert Reischauer, and Dan Crippen. Other participants who are NAPA fellows include Barry Anderson, Josh Gotbaum, Jim Hearn, Bill Hoagland, Susan Irving, Phil Joyce, Anthony McCann, Roy Meyers, Joe Minarik, Steve Redburn, and Alan Rhinesmith.
The group is diverse in its politics, institutional perspectives, and scholarship. If most participants share one view, it is that the budget process can be reformed to offer more help to policy makers facing tough choices required to put the budget on a sustainable course. Original ideas have been advanced based on insights from political science, behavioral economics, and the deep well of practical experience shared by Roundtable members. These include proposals to: (1) budget for major national goals by reviewing the relevant portfolio of spending, tax expenditures, regulations, and other policies; (2) strengthen the congressional budget committees, making them leadership committees that take a stronger role in shaping budget priorities and directing the work of other committees; (3) establish a multi-year budget framework and process with annual targets for budget savings and investment consistent with fiscal sustainability; and (4) budget for tax expenditures and mandatory programs by regularly reviewing them and including tax expenditures in revenue and spending totals.
Roundtable participants have written and commissioned original papers, which can be found at www.budgetingroundtable.com. Rather than pursue consensus on a single set of proposals, they have used their deliberations to vet old and new reform ideas, helping separate the wheat from the chaff.
Roundtable participants have kept an eye out for chances to inform and help shape the agenda, knowing that the time to prepare for a possible future revival of interest in meaningful reform is prior to the time when the political window for reform opens. It would be unfortunate if the rare opportunity for reform, whenever it arose, were not used to enact a set of reforms likely to improve the quality of budget decisions and ultimately to improve fiscal outcomes.