Anne Armstrong: Fiscal brinkmanship

This is budget-forecasting season for fiscal 2006. Analysts at Input and Federal Sources Inc. have crunched the numbers from the agencies and the Office of Management and Budget that accompanied the Bush administration's budget proposal to Congress.

There is good news and bad news for information technology.

Government IT spending continues to climb. Oversight organizations demand that agencies behave more like businesses by justifying the cost of new systems and ensuring that they are secure and will work together.

The bad news is that this is an election year. No one expects much to get done before Nov. 2.

Appropriations bills, whose passage slips later and later each year, will not be a factor until after the elections.

Agencies may want to try to behave like businesses, but most businesses work on budgets that are in place by the beginning of the accounting period. Civilian agencies live on continuing resolutions almost half of the year. Appropriations become a patchwork of earmarks that are rolled into omnibus spending bills that cannot be trimmed and no one can afford to vote against.

Although most observers would support OMB's added muscle in the budgeting process, it withers in the appropriations cycle.

One of Congress' essential functions is the appropriation of funds that agencies need to fulfill their missions and provide services to citizens. Yet, appropriations have not been accomplished in a timely manner in recent history. Congress doesn't pass budgets on time, even after the fiscal year was changed to give them more time. Work expands to fill the time available, so now the process stretches even further. Agencies work on three budget cycles at the same time. No wonder it is difficult to get clean financial statements.

If lawmakers want agencies to perform like businesses, they need to give them the basic tools

to do so. Timely appropriations should be first and foremost.

Despite the extensive effort to reform procurement processes during the past decade, the funding system remains unchanged. It needs a jolt.

In recent years, we heard that political differences were responsible for the delays. When controlled by opposing parties, the White House and Congress struggled to agree on priorities. For example, differences became so severe that the government shut down as the continuing resolution expired. The public didn't approve of brinkmanship and expected the leaders they elected to negotiate differences, not close the place down.

Now the same party controls Congress and the White House, and we still can't get budgets on time. I'm told it is just the nature of politics. I don't accept that. I believe the process needs to change. Agencies have the right to know how much they have to spend at the beginning of the year, especially because we are expecting them to spend wisely and well.

Armstrong is Federal Computer Week's publisher.

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