January 17th, 2007


A budgeting reform concept...

I was thinking this morning about the recent reform of the "earmark" process, which was passed overwhelmingly in the House, and just barely in the Senate (a few Dems defected, but, oddly enough, a few GOP members came over and supported it -- good to see some real backing of fiscal responsibility). Of course, we also have Ted Stevens acknowledging global warming. This is going to be a very strange Congress.

It occurred to me that if we really want to crack down on conflicts of interest in the federal budget process, we ought to, in essence, mark up each line of the budget with the names of all the people involved in creating that line, not just Congressmen. Whoever originates a specific request needs to acknowledge any conflicts of interest -- even those that are only an "appearance" of conflict. The names attached to a line would, when the contracts associated with the line came up for bid, be compared to the bidding companies. Companies with unacknowledged connections would be forbidden from bidding, and the originator might be subject to discipline. This doesn't cope with the "revolving door", where the budgeter who gives a plum contract to Boeing goes on to get a cushy job at Boeing; that kind of conflict isn't obvious til after the fact. We really need to find a way to deal with that. The problem is, it often actually is somewhat justifiable -- a good budgeting official knows the business of the companies he's contracting with, and it's understandable that those companies might value his expertise. But the situation stinks, in terms of accountability. :-/

So, for instance, if you're a Pentagon budgeter, and you're putting into the budget that you need $X for pencils, and your brother owns a pencil factory... Well, he'll be forbidden from bidding for a contract against that budgeted $X unless you acknowledge the situation up front, so it can be given due scrutiny. Maybe he'll get the contract, due to having the best, cheapest pencils around. But we need honesty and transparency in the process.

This system could also allow for people higher up the chain (all the way up to the president) to "endorse" a budget item as being particularly important to them (again, with a requirement to acknowledge conflicts). This would, in particular, allow things like having some higherup endorse things that a recalcitrant subordinate may be uninterested in. (Conflicts between the White House and cabinet secretaries are, shall we say, not unheard of.)
  • Current Mood
    thoughtful thoughtful