Rhetoric vs. Reality

“We’re going to be wise about how we spend your money . . . we’re not going to increase money on programs that aren’t working. We’re results-oriented people.”

– President Bush

President Bush has been talking for weeks about how his budget is tough, placing high premiums on performance and promoting a results-oriented mindset in government. But there is little evidence in the FY 06 budget to support his rhetoric. It seems to b merely a smokescreen providing political cover for a Bush agenda that seeks to promote particular ideological policies while drastically reducing the size of the federal government.

Performance-based measures and results have been a central rhetorical theme of the Bush presidency, whether in education reform, promoting a management agenda, or developing the federal budget. In his recent efforts to promote this “good-government” approach, the president often referred to a list of 154 programs slated for deep cuts or elimination in his FY 06 budget because those programs were “not getting results.”

How exactly does President Bush decide which programs are demonstrating results and which are not? The main tool in measuring and determining this is a specific aspect of the President’s Management Agenda called the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). The technocratic name seems benign but actually masks the political agenda at play.

The president’s FY 06 budget notes the PART was developed to help consistently evaluate a program’s purpose, design, planning, management, results and accountability to determine its overall effectiveness. The PART has reviewed 60 percent of the programs in the federal government over the last three years and will have reviewed all programs once by 2007.

The PART was designed as a way to integrate a focus on results and performance into budget decisions within the executive branch — a priority of good-government advocates for years. Rhetorically, the PART seems like a good idea — but dig a little deeper and all types of problems emerge.

Out of the list of programs the administration has repeatedly trumpeted for being substantially cut or eliminated, supposedly for lack of results, more than two-thirds have never even been reviewed by the PART. It is unclear what kinds of determinations, if any, the president used to identify these failing programs when the White House budget staff has yet to assess them.

Of all the programs on that list that have been reviewed, close to 20 percent of programs receiving an “effective” or “moderately effective” PART score — the two highest ratings — were eliminated. Further, 46 percent of programs receiving the middle rating of “adequate” were eliminated.

A quick review of programs rated under PART since its inception finds no logical or consistent connections with budget requests. Of the 85 programs receiving a top PART score this year, the president proposed cutting the budgets of more than 38 percent, including a land management program run by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Center for Education Statistics.

Even stranger, some programs receiving the lowest score were not cut. For instance, the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant, a program that provides grants to states to address addiction problems, was given the lowest possible rating of “ineffective” but received no reduction in funding. Moreover, the Earned Income Tax Credit Compliance Program — which targets poor people who have claimed the EITC and double-checks their eligibility for the credit — was rated ineffective, yet it received a funding increase.

Regardless of whether such funding decisions are prudent, they raise questions about the value and purpose of the PART. For instance, if a program gets a low PART score does that mean it should be eliminated — or should it receive more money to increase its effectiveness?

Even if we knew the answers to such questions, can a tool like PART adequately measure a huge variety of programs across the federal government in a value-neutral way? Underneath the president’s rhetoric, we find a disturbingly large number of the PART evaluations to be based on the whims of White House budget bean counters, not some truly objective measure such as information collected from program beneficiaries or standards established by law. Conducting program evaluations in this way is a costly exercise generating meaningless numbers that do nothing but back up pre-ordained political conclusions.

Notwithstanding Bush’s rhetoric, it is clear his budget decisions are guided not by results but by ideology and politics. The PART is but a thin veneer of accountability and good government deflecting attention and criticism from controversial and politically biased judgments. In this sense the PART mechanism itself, ironically, fails to demonstrate successful results. Members of Congress, other actors in government, and above all the American public must not buy into the president’s rhetoric — in reality it is only talk.

Gary Bass is Executive Director and Adam Hughes is Budget Policy Analyst
at OMB Watch.