The Budget

Texts in public policy generally neglect the topic of budgeting. Frankly, the budget can be a boring topic and students find the technicalities of the process arduous and mired in arcane detail. Few of us who are not directly involved have the appetite to study either the budget or the complicated process by which it is authorized. Not so those who are involved. For them, the budget is everything.

Yes, the budget process is paramount in the practical world of government. Be advised about its importance in the day-to-day operations of government and about the sheer time and effort it demands from agency heads and elected officials. We should neither trivialize the budgetary process, nor get a headache probing the intricate flowcharts and elaborate procedures which untangle it.

Further, even if we wanted to study the budgetary process more, it would not be easy or productive. Budget documents are huge tomes consisting mostly of tables of departments and agencies and their all-important lines depicting programs and budgetary authorization. They are about as much fun to read as your local phone book, not including the yellow pages. The political science literature on the budget process is sparse. Not as dramatic as policy formulation, the budget process gets meager treatment, as does implementation. But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.

What Is a Budget?

So, what is a budget? Here is our opertional definition:

A budget is a plan for raising and spending money.

Budget might be regarded as public intentions with price tags attached. Budgets include itemized estimates of anticipated income and expenses, including a plan of operation based on such estimates. Why are budgets important? There are several answers:

  1. Without the financial means to implement a policy, nothing can happen. Budgets link the financial resources of government with its purposes. It is the sine qua non of government, therefore public policy.

  2. Budget determination lies at the heart of the political process: Who gets what, when, and how, Lasswell's classic definition of politics.

  3. Budgets imply limits, constraints, scarcity. Hence, budgets force hard choices. They crystallize the bottom line.

  4. Budgets reveal values. Budgets force explicit choices among goals, all of which cost money to implement and therefore compete. In the abstract, all such purposes may be desirable, but in the concrete budgetary process, their rank order emerges. In a way, the budget is the ultimate policy statement.

Over time, budgets and policy merge. In theory, policy defines ends while budgets define means. In practice, the budgetary process is fundamental in implementing or adjusting legislative intent. while we might view budgets as economic phenomena, they are intensely political. Indeed, the government budget cuts to the heart of political economy.

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Initialized: November 3, 2002 | Last Update: 8/15/2008