Budget Officials: Across-the-Board Cuts Are the ‘Lazy’ Way Out

Survey respondents now prefer a more targeted approach.

Federal budget officials are turning against across-the-board spending cuts in favor of a more refined approach, a new survey finds.

Only 8 percent of respondents to a 2013 survey of federal budget professionals conducted by the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis and Grant Thornton said they would prefer to achieve spending reductions by making broad cuts and protecting all their programs. Another 14 percent said they supported across-the-board cuts but would chop some programs more than others.

In contrast to a similar 2011 survey, however, a majority of budget officials indicated they would opt for a more targeted strategy. Fifty-four percent said they “try to consider program priorities when we allocate our cuts,” and 24 percent said their agencies would “better serve our stakeholders by doing fewer activities but doing them well.”

Participants used “words like ‘stupid,’ ‘coward’s way out’ and ‘lazy analyst’ to describe across-the-board cuts,” the report on the survey results stated. “The respondents’ comments were fairly uniform, with many of them declaring they need the ability to eliminate entire programs.”

In 2011, “more respondents said they would prefer to reduce many activities rather than to eliminate a few,” the authors noted.

The online survey -- which drew 145 responses, mostly from executive branch officials – depicted a budget workforce trying to engage in longer-term planning while constrained by uncertainty surrounding appropriations levels. Despite sequestration, continuing resolutions and persistent shutdown threats (this survey was nearly complete before the 16-day October shutdown), only 10 percent of respondents said they were focused solely on “making it through the year,” but 82 percent acknowledged that budget analysis suffers when officials “have to contend with the crisis du jour.” 

Many participants also said it would be hard, if not impossible, to find further cuts. Asked how they would adhere to Office of Management and Budget guidance directing them to reduce their fiscal 2015 budget submissions by 10 percent over previous estimates, 28 percent said “after all of our other reductions, there is nothing left to cut.” Another 39 percent said it would be “difficult but doable.” Only 15 percent indicated the task would be relatively easy.

“Constrained by funding and politics, agencies have forced [budget professionals] to become masters of the Band-Aid solution – finding the quick, low-cost fix that pushes challenges into the future rather than solving them in the present,” the report concluded. “They are often frustrated and sometimes angry at the state of the budget process today.” 

(Image via larry1235/