Can US Budget Be Rational?

George Bush wants to leave a mark on government by trying to run it like an effective corporation. He brought CEOs into his Cabinet, turned a chronically tardy and leak-prone White House into a tight ship, and insisted on performance measurements - most notably in public schools.

With his newly released budget, Bush is applying accountability standards to something Americans wonder about - whether their tax dollars get sucked down the drain, or are actually used for programs that work.

Based on a series of about 30 questions, the White House rates federal programs from "effective" to "ineffective." The questions resemble what stockholders might ask of companies: Is their purpose clear? Are their managers held accountable? Are they meeting annual and long-range performance goals?

But here's another question that should be asked: Does the president's approach get the intended results?

The White House says that demanding accountability is improving efficiency. For instance, the State Department's Refugee Admissions program reduced costs over two years by nearly $1,000 per refugee, while besting the goal of number of refugees admitted.

But overall, this budget approach has a long way to go. The task is so vast, that after three budgets, only 60 percent of the federal government is completing self-evaluations. It will take two more budgets to close the loop. Meanwhile, the administration is mostly talking to itself. Until now, Congress has largely ignored the president's score card. Some members don't even know of the rating system (unimaginatively called the Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART).

But lawmakers are sure to learn of the tool now. For in one of the most austere budget proposals in years, the administration has used PART to identify a large portion of the 150 programs to be reduced or eliminated - cuts that have set off a brouhaha among these programs' stakeholders.

No president wants to be seen as feeding the government beast. Jimmy Carter's "zero-based" budgeting (in which programs had to justify themselves each year) and Richard Nixon's "management by objective" genuflected in this direction.

But efforts to apply objective criteria to government spending inevitably run into the immovable force of politics - lawmakers (and presidents) satisfying constituents, ideology, and campaign contributors. And some budget experts warn against overreliance on measuring. A new book by the Rand Corp. says the key is to reinvigorate the civil service with talented leaders and incentives.

While it may seem a Sisyphean task, presidents are right to push for accountability. The nation's needs change, and taxpayers deserve a decent bang for their buck. Perhaps the president's approach will turn out to be worth copying by a future administration. Even if that were the case, however, Congress still needs to be more aware of these "score cards."

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