Budgeting in Neverland: Irrational Policymaking in the U.S. Congress and What Can Be Done about It

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Many Americans are disappointed by the hugeamounts of money Congress spends, but that's notthe real problem. The real problem is the profoundlyirrational system Congress uses to decide howmuch to spend.

The basic requirement for intelligent decisionmakingis to hear arguments and evidence fromboth sides of an issue. Congress ignores thisrequirement in its budget-making process. Insteadof hearing both the pros and the cons of spendingon particular programs, Congress usually hearsfrom only the self-interested supporters of programs.Those biased advocates of spending typicallyinclude federal program administrators, whosecareers depend on making their programs lookgood, and lobbyists paid by program beneficiariesto promote programs.

The avalanche of one-sided propaganda infavor of federal programs creates a false picturefor policymakers. They live in a Neverlandwhere federal spending programs are routinelyportrayed as necessary, helpful, and effective.The result is that Congress continues to fund,decade after decade, many programs that arewasteful and harmful.

The corrective is for Congress to adopt measuresto balance the decisionmaking process byhearing from opponents of spending programs.The committees that oversee spending shouldroutinely invite critics of programs to participatein the congressional information-gatheringprocess. Another reform idea is to create a federal"office of taxpayer advocacy" charged with voicingthe taxpayer interest when Congress considersprogram funding decisions. Such proceduralreforms are needed if Congress is to get spendingunder control and begin making serious tradeoffsregarding priorities in the federal budget.

James L. Payne

James L. Payne is a political scientist who has taught at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M universities. He is the author of books on Latin American politics, social science methodology, defense policy, and the motivations of politicians. His books include The Culture of Spending (ICS Press, 1991) and Overcoming Welfare (Basic Books, 1998).