Commentary

PART of the Problem

In these days of prolific spending, Congressional appropriators have given the green light to a litany of projects of questionable merit, such as swimming pools, bike trails and aquariums. At a time like this, one would think they could find any number of wasteful programs to cut. Curiously, they targeted a program designed to make their jobs easier.

The Program Assessment Rating Tool was developed by the Bush administration in 2002 to track the effectiveness of government programs by requiring federal programs and agencies to submit periodic questionnaires describing their goals, progress, and results. PART is a well-intentioned effort to bring financial accountability to the federal government, and in 2005 it won an innovation award from Harvard.

Unfortunately, accountability seems to be a dirty word in Washington. The House Appropriations Committee recently approved a bill that would cut off PART’s funding, effectively shutting it down.

The reason? As committee spokesman John Scofield notes, “It’s nice to get a cute little number … but PART tends to be an excuse to cut Congress’ priorities.”

Essentially, House appropriators are concerned that increased attention to the ineptitude of the government will compromise their efforts to expand it.

Take, for instance, the Community Development Block Grant program. In his 2007 budget proposal, President Bush recommended cutting CDBG’s $3.8 billion funding level by $738 million, citing a “lack of a clear purpose” and “weak targeting of funds to areas with greatest need.” The House Appropriations Committee’s bill instead would increase funding to $3.9 billion. To members of the committee, the “purpose” and “areas of greatest need” of the program are clear – it is a mechanism to funnel money into their home districts.

The President recommended similar funding cuts for the TRIO Upward Bound programs, which aim to help low-income students attend college. PART found these programs “ineffective” because they failed to increase participants’ college enrollment rates. Though President Bush suggested cutting TRIO by $448 million, the House Appropriations Committee moved to restore funding for these programs to last year’s levels without rebutting the President’s critique.

The committee claims that its ire toward PART is due to the fact that PART scores reveal little about the methodology by which they are generated. In a recent report it notes, “The committee finds little use for a budget justification which does not reveal specific details of the measurable indicators and standards used to evaluate a program’s performance, relevance, or adherence to underlying authorization statute.”

True, PART is flawed and could be improved in a number of ways, including increasing the transparency of the assessment process. But few people view PART as a panacea or even a comprehensive program evaluation tool. The White House created it to evaluate the efficiency of federal programs with respect to strategic planning, financial management, and goal achievement. However, the tool fails to assess the worthiness of government programs. Efficiency ratings are meaningless if the programs that they assess provide no discernible benefits to the general public, are unconstitutional, or should be privatized.

Still, in Congress’ eyes, PART’s shortcomings should be its strength, not its weakness. It is the responsibility of Congress, not the White House, to provide a comprehensive evaluation of federal programs. PART is only meant to complement these efforts, not supplant them.

Instead of embracing PART – a tool intended to provide them with more information on the performance of federal programs – the House Appropriations Committee has ironically acted to defund it, while demanding more information and accountability. Imagine how much leaner and more efficient the federal government would be if the Committee applied the same level of scrutiny to a few other programs.

Brandon Arnold is a director of government affairs at the Cato Institute.