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Six Questions to Ask About the Federal Budget

by Scott Bittle

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

One of the biggest problems in getting Americans engaged on the nation's fiscal challenges is that the problem is so hard for most people to get their arms around. The numbers are so huge, the issues so arcane and the problems so daunting that people may get angry about it, but have no idea how to grab onto it.

That's what makes the approach of the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States interesting. Their Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report, issued by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) today, is about how to control our national debt, already past $12 trillion and threatening to rise to staggering (and dangerous) proportions. Public Agenda is part of the Choosing Our Fiscal Future project with NAPA, working to build a network of citizens who'll get involved in the discussion and work on solutions.

The nonpartisan committee laid out a goal for a sustainable debt level (keeping it to 60 percent of gross domestic product), four alternative paths for reaching the goal, and six basic questions to ask about any federal budget. The committee argues that if the answers to these questions are "yes," we're at least making progress.

Here are the questions, taken directly from the report. Consider whether the federal budget meets them now – and more importantly, keep them in mind as new budgets are proposed.

  1. Does the proposed budget include policy actions that start to reduce the deficit in the near future in order to reduce short-term borrowing and long-term interest costs?
  2. Does the proposed budget put the government on a path to reduce the federal debt within a decade to a sustainable percentage of GDP? Given the fiscal outlook and the committee’s analysis of the many factors that affect economic outcomes, the committee believes that the lowest ratio that is economically manageable within a decade, as well as practical and politically feasible, is 60 percent.
  3. Does the proposed budget align revenues and spending closely over the long term?
  4. Does the proposed budget restrain health care cost growth and introduce changes now in the major entitlement programs and in other spending and tax policies that will have cumulative beneficial fiscal effects over time?
  5. Does the budget include spending and revenue policies that are cost-effective and promote more efficient use of resources in both the public and private sectors?
  6. Does the federal budget reflect a realistic assessment of the fiscal problems facing state and local governments?

This gives the public something they haven't had before: a set of standards for a "good" budget, or at least as good as it can be given the tremendous fiscal challenges we face. If we give the public more tools to measure the problem, and grapple with real solutions, we can get ahead of this challenge – while there's still time.

To find out more, and to become part of the citizen network working on this issue, visit the Choosing Our Fiscal Future web site, become a Facebook fan, or follow us on Twitter @FiscalFuture.



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