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Thanks to the Shutdown, We Finally Got Some Zero-Based Budgeting!

Posted: October 5, 2013 at 9:00 am   /   by


It was a clumsy way to get there, but thanks to the government “shutdown”, we finally have some zero-based budgeting at the federal level — even if only for a few days!

Folks, there are 479 (that’s FOUR HUNDRED SEVENTY-NINE) federal agencies and departments.  Have some fun by clicking this link and you can see all of them listed alphabetically by name.  Each name is itself a clickable link, and you can read about what some of these arcane outfits ostensibly do to serve We the People.

Impressed? For me, it’s more like nauseated. Sure, some on that list are critical, expensive, and part of Constitutionally defined federal government responsibilities like the Department of Defense. Others are expensive and have failed badly at their assigned missions, like the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Why do we go on paying for those monstrous failures, you might ask?

The glib answer is:  Because we always have, and it’s just too much trouble to shut them down. 

Plus: Don’t you care about children? Don’t you care about the environment? Don’t you care about independence from Middle East oil? Don’t you care about the hundreds of thousands of federal government employees who fill those huge buildings?  Do you want to throw them out of work? Wouldn’t that hurt the economy?

ZBB1From time to time, our lawmakers have attempted to force zero-based budgeting (ZBB) on at least part of the federal budget. Under that accounting approach, a department or agency budget would start each fiscal year at ZERO, and the agency would have to (re)justify getting any budget at all every year.

Actually, that sounds pretty good, no?  For example, I would like the 479th agency in that alphabetical list, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, to not be funded automatically for the following year. I’d like Congress to do its job (damn it!) and review every agency they fund as if they were spending their children’s money on it. The fact is, they are.

Of course, in principle, that Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars budget could be explicitly reviewed, but to run that exercise for all those agencies would be a nightmare. They all have constituencies somewhere, as well as a House representative who thinks it’s his/her job to look after them. And given that it now takes Congress 30 days just to make instant coffee, can you imagine how long the debates would last?

Nah, it’s easier just to fund everything year after year, and that’s pretty much what Congress has done — fund all of it. And it helps the representatives get along nicely with each other.  “I won’t attack your district’s agency if you won’t attack mine.”  That’s the unspoken agreement. And that’s a big reason why the feds almost always spend more than they take in. And that’s why we, our children, and our grandchildren now have $17,000,000,000,000 (seventeen trillion dollars) in debt.

us-debt-graph-2020But suddenly — for this brief shining moment — it’s all changed.

Congress and the president have stumbled onto zero-based budgeting. Instead of funding everything, they’ve defunded everything. and they’re setting about to put the funding back on a one-at-a-time exception basis. As taxpayers, we should insist that they keep doing it this way.

I really like it. It’s kind of an “EVERYBODY OUT OF THE POOL!” approach. It reminds me of what some doctors do when they try to treat an ill patient who is already on a couple dozen different medications. The doctor’s first step is often to stop all medications and put them back one at a time.

Why not keep this up?  In other words, instead of defunding agencies by exception, defund all the agencies, en masse and re-fund them one-at-a-timeon an explicit ad hoc basis. And take your time, guys. No rush. Do it right. Give We the People time for some input.

My compliments to Speaker Boehner for his good words in the video above.  He doesn’t mention zero-based budgeting by name, but he does define the problem that ZBB would address. However we got here, maybe we’ve finally found the path back to fiscal sanity(?).


David Leeper

David Leeper

David Leeper is a retired engineer living in Scottsdale, AZ, with his wife of 45 years. He is currently a volunteer science teacher at In his 40-year career he held positions from lab technician to technical vice president at Bell Labs, Motorola, and Intel. He holds 16 patents in telecom technology and a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. During his career, he wrote mainly for technical journals including Scientific American. He began writing for in 2011.
David Leeper

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Thanks to the Shutdown, We Finally Got Some Zero-Based Budgeting!