Federal Budget Reform



The Challenge
The design of the federal budget process has enormous implications for how funds are allocated and revenue is raised. If the process works well, it should reflect a consensus about our national priorities. For these reasons, powerful stakeholder groups are deeply interested the details of the budget process. When lawmakers seek to alter budget procedures without first seeking consensus among stakeholders on long-term priorities, suspicion, resistance and gridlock often follows. This is the situation we face today.

Efforts to use budget process reforms to help break the deadlock in federal budgeting present a major opportunity and a major challenge. Polarization and distrust mean many stakeholder groups are resistant to changes that they may perceive as disadvantageous them, even if there could be long-term benefits to the nation and positive impacts on governance. We believe a new kind of conversation between stakeholders will increase the chances for meaningful budget reform.

The Convergence Process
With funding from the Hewlett Foundation, the Building a Better Budget (B3P) Project is focusing on designing a new framework for the budget process to help the country move beyond the current stalemates. We are convening a working group of key stakeholders for a series of facilitated discussions designed first to build trust; then to explore and air suspicions, concerns, hopes and priorities; and finally, to build a framework for budgeting that all can support and advance.  Our unique role is to bring together senior officials from constituency groups with a stake in the budget process, as well as budget experts, political scientists and others – organizations that, in the past, were rarely asked to weigh in on process reform proposals.

Over the summer and fall of 2016, we conducted interviews with more than 80 individuals with a broad range of views and expertise. Based on these interviews, we selected nearly 30 participants representing influential organizations across the ideological and programmatic spectrum to join the formal dialogue process, which began in the late fall of 2016. The group includes organizations representing elderly persons, younger Americans, veterans, business interests, healthcare, infrastructure initiatives, universities, state and local governments, and defense, as well as organizations focused on federal spending and budget reform. Together, they are working to find common ground and to develop this framework with the help of professional facilitators who create the right environment for trust-building and consensus.

The dialogue has been informed by information and ideas gleaned from a series roundtable meetings we convened in early 2016 to identify and understand basic tensions in the debate over the budget that tend to thwart agreement. By way of example, one tension is between balancing the investments needed for the future against spending on current needs. Another tension is how to provide security to older Americans, yet also invest in the next generation. Roundtable participants also explored the spending implications inherent in creating a safety net for vulnerable Americans; the optimal level of revenue collections and spending; and the implications of the federal budget process for the delivery of services by state and local governments.

Next Steps
Our monthly meetings will continue through the first half of 2017. We will engage outside experts who can offer ideas to the group to advance the conversation toward an agreed framework for designing federal budgets. Outcomes could range from consensus around a slate of proposals for immediate reform to longer-term initiatives that could potentially reshape the budget process and move Congress beyond its current stalemate to a more functional system.