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February 13, 2012

Filed under: journalism»political

Red Letter Day

Ah, budget day: the most annoying day of a data journalist's year. Even now that I'm no longer covering Congress, it still bugs me a little--except now, instead of being frustrated by the problem of finding stories, I'm just annoyed by the coverage itself. Few serious policy documents create so much noise from so little data.

For those who are unaware, on the night before budget day, each senator or representative places a constituent's tooth under their pillow before going to bed. While they're asleep, dreaming of filibusters and fundraising, the White House Chief of Staff creeps into their bedrooms and takes the tooth away, leaving a gift in return. Oh, the cries of joy when the little congresscritters wake to find a thick trio of paperback budget documents waiting for them!

Casting the budget as a fairy tale isn't as snarky as it might seem, because the president's budget is almost entirely wishful thinking. The executive branch, after all, does not control the purse strings of government--that power lies with the legislature. The budget is valuable in that it sets an agenda and expresses priorities, but any numbers in it are a total pipe dream until the appropriations process finishes. And if you want an example of how increasingly dysfunctional Congress has become, look no further than appropriations.

Although money for the next fiscal year is supposed to be allocated into appropriations bills by October 1st (the start of the federal fiscal year), they are increasingly late, often months late. In the meantime, Congress passes what are called "continuing resolutions"--stopgap measures that fund the government at (usually) reduced levels until real funding is passed. You can actually see the delays getting worse in a couple of graphics that my team put together at CQ: first, the number of "bill days" delayed since 1983, and then the number of "bill months" delayed by committee since 1990. Needless to say, this probably isn't helping the federal government run at its most efficient.

The connection between the president's budget and the resulting sausage is therefore tenuous at best (don't even get me started on tracking funds through appropriations itself). Even worse, from the perspective of a data-oriented reporter, is that the numbers in the budget are not static. They are revised multiple times by the White House in the months after release--and not only are they revised, they are often revised retroactively as new economic data comes in and the numbers must be adjusted to fit the actual policy environment. So even if we could talk about budget numbers as though they were "real money," the question remains: which budget numbers? And from when?

During my first couple of years at CQ, around January I would sit down with the Budget Tracker team and the economics editor, and propose a whole series of cool interactive features for budget season. And each time, they would politely and carefully explain all these caveats, which collectively added up to: we could talk about the budget in print, where numbers would not be charted against each other, and we could talk about the ways the budget/appropriations process is broken. But there simply isn't enough solid data to graph or visualize those numbers, since that lends them a visual credibility that they don't actually have.

The result is that I find budget day frustrating, even after leaving the newsroom, because it feels like a failure--something we should have been able to explain to our readers more fully, but couldn't quite grasp ourselves. Simultaneously, I often find coverage by other outlets annoying because they report on the budget as thought it's more meaningful than it actually will be, or they'll chart it across visualizations as though imaginary numbers could be compared to each other (there is an element of jealousy to this, no doubt: it must be nice to work in a place where you can get away with a little editorial sloppiness). It's a shame, because the budget itself is not broken. As an indication of what the White House thinks is important for the upcoming year, it's a great resource. But it is not a long-term financial plan, and shouldn't be reported as such.

Future - Present - Past