Editorial: Thinking rationally

Since taking leadership three years ago, the Bush administration has breathed new life into its end of the budgeting process. The question, yet again, is whether Congress can follow suit.

For its part, the executive branch has made strides toward linking budget requests to performance goals. Forcing agency officials to develop business cases for proposed programs helps the Office of Management and Budget — and the agencies themselves — improve the management of individual programs and think carefully about overall spending priorities.

Granted, this budget process is still a work in progress. Most budget

planners, by all accounts, have not mastered the art of the business case study, and OMB likely has a learning curve of its own, as officials decide which

cases are acceptable. Still, the concept is sound, even if the execution is

imperfect.

The problem comes when the budget reaches Congress. Ideally, if agencies do a better job of preparing business case studies, OMB officials should do

a better job of making the case for programs that deserve funding, and the appropriations committees should be able to make more rational decisions about where to cut. But politics still trumps rational thinking.

The most recent exhibit was the debate about funding for the Electronic Records Archive program. Last year, senators cut the program's funding only to have the House add it in later. The decision would have undermined a project of utmost importance to the government and the public.

Congress has the right to raise questions about management problems. But its committees cannot always knock core programs off track simply because they are not pleased with their progress.

It's an issue worth remembering as the executive and legislative branches begin debating the fiscal 2005 budget. Homeland security and military operations in the Middle East and elsewhere will continue to draw funding away from other programs, in both civilian and Defense agencies. As the election year progresses, the appropriations committees could become staging grounds for fiercely contested battles over spending priorities.

It may be too much to hope that good business thinking, still a new concept in government, could prevail in such an atmosphere.

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