OMB and Congress at odds over budgeting

Appropriators often put politics above efficient government

Members of Congress are resisting Office of Management and Budget officials' efforts to transform the federal government by selectively funding programs based on their demonstrated results.

The Bush administration's budgeting policy — performance-based budgeting — relies largely on OMB's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), which officials use to assign performance scores to federal programs. According to the President's Management Agenda, lawmakers should base funding decisions on PART scores, said Robert Shea, OMB's counsel to the deputy director for management, speaking at the Government Performance Conference in Washington, D.C., last week.

But programs that administration officials want to scale back or eliminate because of their PART scores sometimes receive increased funding from lawmakers. "Focusing on performance generally has not been good politics," said Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, speaking at the same conference.

That's not true, said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. "We actually think a performance-based budget is an excellent idea," he said. But the Bush administration's attempt to deliver its first complete performance-based budget to the legislative branch in fiscal 2005 was not uniformly appreciated, he said, adding that "we don't want it to be used as a way to disadvantage congressional priorities."

Budget justification materials should not include "reams of narrative text expounding on the performance goals and achievements of the various agencies." According to a report accompanying the fiscal 2005 Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies spending bill, agency performance materials required staff "to weed through mountains of information in the hope of finding something useful," according to the report. Several spending bill reports warn agencies against doing it again.

The PART assessments have mixed results, Scofield said. "Some programs that get good scores get good increases," he said. Likewise, some low-scoring programs are slated for budget increases.

That is true, Shea said in his conference address. "There's nothing automatic that happens as a result of these ratings," he said. But there is a correlation between good PART ratings and increased funding in the president's budget request, he said. Programs demonstrated to be ineffective have been cut on average by 40 percent in the budget request, he said.

OMB officials often speak about the need to create a performance-oriented culture in the federal government, the results of which are only now beginning to show, they say. A Web site by OMB is scheduled to go online this summer will display all PART results without the management jargon, Johnson said.

Citizens' expectations of their government will increase when they can see the results, he said. "Right now, I don't think our citizens expect that much of the federal government."

Getting lawmakers to accept PART assessments is partly the responsibility of agency officials, who should persuade congressional leaders that the tool can be useful to them, Shea said.

How well agencies defend the budgeting tool in congressional testimony, which OMB officials vet in advance, is a factor in how OMB ranks those agencies on their quarterly management agenda score cards, Shea added.

Some defend OMB's budgeting tool

Not every congressional leader dislikes the Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). Authorizing committees have embraced it, said Mike Hettinger, staff director of the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency and Financial Management Subcommittee.

But authorizers don't control the powerful appropriations subcommittees. As authorizers, Hettinger said, "we deal in the theoretical, primarily, and that makes the practical sometimes difficult for us to understand."

Appropriators shouldn't fear that earmarked programs are necessarily going to be eliminated as a result of the rating tool, Hettinger said. "Earmarked programs are not going to be PARTed, at least not at the outset."

Sometimes, however, "you're going to have some conflict," he said.

Lawmakers also worry that the original legislative intent that led to a program's creation is not what is being evaluated when PART is used, said Tabetha Mueller, a subcommittee staff member.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) that is awaiting full House debate would institutionalize the requirement for periodic program assessments. The bill may be amended to require the historical intent of statutory programs be a factor in such assessments, Hettinger said.

Platts' bill, which does not specify PART as a required assessment tool, cleared the House Government Reform Committee in March.

— David Perera

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