Preventable Train Wrecks: Federal Budget Advocacy

The new federal fiscal year just started.

Which would be a noteworthy event if, say, we had a budget that actually started on the fiscal year, with new budget authorization for the federal agencies whose work is so important to our individual and collective well-being. If the new fiscal year meant the actual resources we need to do the critical activities that support the nation’s most fervent desires and greatest needs? Well, these days, that sounds nearly miraculous.

Instead, we have a perpetual mess that few can understand and no one can control, or even predict. The one constant for we social workers is that we will have to scrimp and scrounge to find the money to do what needs to be done, with a growing resentment towards a government, and a budget process, that isn’t supposed to make our jobs this much harder.

When I talk with social work advocates about the federal budget, as I do in class every fall and in conversations with nonprofit leaders throughout the year, their reactions to the whole affair are pretty much the same:

Disdain, disgust, disengagement…with periodic disaster, whenever the (usually very) small slice of the federal budget that funds their work is threatened, or rumored to be so, since few social service providers have enough direct information about the federal budget to know for sure.

This means that social work advocates have a rather spectacularly dysfunctional relationship with the federal budget. We fail in our federal budget advocacy in some rather routine ways, and those failures have implications not only for our own programs and constituencies, but, indeed, for the fiscal health of the nation as a whole.

The biggest errors are these (and, of course, it goes without saying both that these are not universal and that I include myself among the culpable):

  • We take as truth the common wisdom about the federal budget–today, that there’s a “crisis”, because we don’t understand enough about the process to make those analyses for ourselves.
  • We look only at a portion of the budget, very seldom weighing in on the big picture, so that our advocacy becomes a real elbowing match, as we fight for meager portions with others (mostly other social service types) relegated to our corner of the budget.
  • We totally overlook the revenue side, as though, somehow, the tax debate was not our fight, which essentially dooms us to vying for a tiny piece of a shrinking pie.
  • We get involved way too late, mobilizing our constituencies only when there’s a perception of real threat, and, even then, we don’t/can’t help those same constituencies understand all of the factors at play that create the crisis. This sets up our grassroots folks to make panicked phone calls, without much context, to “not cut the funding for XYZ”, which, while not necessarily an ineffective lobbying technique, is anything but empowering. We need those who receive our services to understand where the funding comes from, how to make the case year-round, and how the viability of those services is affected by other political and economic factors. Talk about teachable moments.
  • We let the ugliness of the process excuse our inaction. I hate the “shadow budget” as much as the next do-gooder. I’m appalled at our tax code and frightened about the future of our entitlements. I think it’s inexcusable how much money we spend on things that don’t really matter, and how easily our spending priorities are distorted by raw political considerations. Yes, yes, and yes. But that doesn’t mean that we can afford to sit this one out, or that the illogic and sometimes sheer nastiness of the federal budget process makes it an inappropriate or unnecessary realm for our best advocacy efforts.

    Because the results are predictable: when we’re not there, at least not until the end, our voices are not reflected in the budget, which is, after all, fundamentally a statement of values–the same way that my own checkbook register shows what I care about enough to spend money on.

    And we can do better. We must. Because the hard questions aren’t going to get answered if we’re not even asking them.

    And because our clients deserve far better than crumbs.

    I regularly read the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ federal budget analyses, even the footnotes that I sometimes struggle to understand. I scan the policy priorities of some of the other major advocacy groups that watch the federal budget. I read national news coverage of the budget battles, and I attend public forums and listen to commentary from my own congressional delegation. And I pay attention to discussion about process reforms–the ways that we could make our budget negotiations go better so that the resulting budget would be better, too, even though sometimes the appropriation v. authorization talk makes my eyes glaze over, too.

    Because advocating with and for those we have the honor to serve means being in the toughest fights.

    And the most tedious, nauseating, and overwhelming, too.

    Let’s make this the last federal fiscal train wreck we fail to prevent.

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