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Time to rethink the US budget process. Here's one idea.

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Since September, Congress has passed three stopgap spending bills to keep the government operating until a full-year funding agreement can be reached.

When Congress can’t agree on a spending plan before the start of the Oct. 1 federal fiscal year, it passes continuing resolutions to keep the government open. If a continuing resolution is not passed, funding stops for programs relying on appropriations, effectively shutting down much of the government until an agreement is reached.

Executive director of MIT’s Golub Center for Finance and Policy and MIT Sloan senior lecturer Doug Criscitello thinks it is time to rethink this process — with a focus on data. “If we reimagined the 1970s-era federal budget process today, how would we do it?” Criscitello asked. “The government has been quite active in passing laws aimed at enabling the availability and use of federal data in recent years, so why not explore ways to use technology, data, and analytics in the budget process?”

One potential way to do that would be to tie automatic continuing resolutions to performance indicators. Criscitello cited President George W. Bush’s management scorecards as one possible model.

Agency programs received green, indicating success, yellow, indicating mixed results, or red, indicating unsuccessful results, on their performance scorecards. Bush’s scorecards were not linked to continuing resolution funding, but Criscitello thinks there could be a way to do so to ensure that at least high-functioning programs avoid funding lapses — and using data to make evidence-based determinations could help mitigate the opportunity to play politics with basic government operations.

Policymakers have at various times proposed enacting automatic continuing resolutions [PDF] that would fund the government when budget agreements aren’t reached. That solution is unlikely to happen — the power of the purse is a constitutionally provided power that Congress guards. Moreover — in addition to concerns that automatic continuing resolutions could result in funding cuts — when a government shutdown looms, the minority party wields substantial power it is unlikely to give up. If the majority party doesn’t have 60 Senate votes — the number needed for filibuster-proof passage of the budget — the minority party can hold its votes until the issues that matter most to it are addressed.

By tying automatic continuing resolutions to performance indicators, though, the minority party could retain its leverage, while allowing certain agencies and programs that are operating successfully, reaching their goals, and adhering to their missions, to be continually funded.

Since enactment of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, the law that specifies the process Congress uses to adopt the annual budget, there have been 18 government shutdowns, lasting anywhere from hours to weeks.

Those gaps in funding have had far-reaching effects. The Clinton administration estimated that a six-day shutdown in November 1995 cost the government $800 million, not to mention the disruption in business as usual that affected millions. During a shutdown, hundreds of thousands of government workers are furloughed. Though they are typically paid retroactively, national parks also close, new paperwork for passports and visas halts, and new applications for social security and welfare programs typically aren’t processed, among other things.

To avoid shutdowns, the legislative branch has passed continuing resolutions for all but four the last 40 years — with 21 during fiscal year 2001 alone. A lot has changed since the 1970s when the current system was put in place. “There is clearly something to be said for revisiting the entire process, but, more narrowly, there are also evidenced-based ways to cure at least some of the continuing resolution malady now plaguing the system,” Criscitello said.

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