February 11, 2020 5:21PM

EPA’s FY 2021 Budget Sets Out to Dupe Congress (again)

The EPA’s annual budget just came out, and it’s as confusing as ever—by insidious design.

All agencies have CFO offices whose responsibility is to work with the White House to produce a budget for congressional consideration. In addition to crunching numbers, agency CFOs also provide lawmakers with two qualitative descriptions: a “budget‐​in‐​brief” and a “budget justification.” These documents are supposed to play a crucial role in Congress’s power of the purse. After all, Congress cannot be a responsible steward of public funds if lawmakers have no idea how appropriations are spent.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think these documents should be easy‐​peasy. A useful budget justification would:

  • Identify the regulatory program;
  • Identify the office or division in the agency that is executing the program;
  • Identify the statutory basis of the program (is it discretionary or is it required by statute?);
  • Identify how much is being spent on the program.

Presto! All it takes is 4 bullet points per program. With this simple template, lawmakers could easily glean enough facts to make informed choices with the nation’s pocketbook.

In practice, alas, the EPA’s budget descriptions have been far from simple. In a word, these documents have been gobbledygook.

A few years ago, I tried to make sense of the agency’s FY 2017 budget justification. I’d been following the EPA for a decade, so I felt qualified to understand the document. Yet after a few frustrating weeks, I remained bewildered by the agency’s Kafkaesque presentation.

Instead of organizing its budget justification by office or statute, the EPA employed an indecipherable matrix of conceptual goals and organizational labels. Over the course of 1,200 pages, the document described 170 of these matrix combinations, using airy prose that failed to impart even the most basic information (such as, “which office is spending the money?”).

It slowly dawned on me that the confusion was intentional. By making it impossible to “follow the money,” the agency hoped to defeat congressional oversight.

On reviewing prior budget justifications, I discovered that this obfuscation extended at least to the George W. Bush administration.

I’d not given much thought to the matter until today, on seeing a story about the EPA’s FY 2021 budget. Having had my curiosity piqued, I investigated the EPA’s current justification, hopeful that our business‐​minded president had imposed some needed discipline on agency accounting.

No dice. The FY 2021 document relies on the same incomprehensible matrix.

To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to share. Not a single member of Congress has the wherewithal to demand an EPA budget that makes sense.