Public Budgeting in America: A Twentieth Century Retrospective

Article excerpt

By Charlie Tyer and Jennifer Willand*

ABSTRACT. Reviewing the development of budgeting in America in the twentieth century, this article assesses where public budgeting is as it approaches the twentyfirst century. Five periods are identified in American budgeting, drawing upon the work of Schick and Rubin: control, management, planning, prioritization and accountability. Budgeting in the 1990s is described as characterized by accountability and a "new" performance budgeting emphasis. The authors argue that the budget reform movement is still alive and well in American government, with local governments once more leading the way.


As the United States nears the end of the twentieth century it is appropriate that practitioners and students of public administration pause and consider what has occurred during this century in public administration and its many subfields. One of the most important subfields of public administration is budgeting. This article reviews American budgeting during the twentieth century to assess where we are as we prepare to enter the twenty-first century.

The twentieth century began with the focus of activity at the municipal level with an emphasis on budgeting, and in particular in New York City. An argument can be made that as the century ends attention is still upon cities as budgeting evolves in the United States. Admittedly the focus of budget innovation has not omitted the states and the national government during this century. But, we may be ending the century as we started it, with attention focused upon local government.

Schick (1966) wrote that, depending upon conditions at a given time in history, budgets have tended to emphasize financial control, managerial improvements, or planning. Rubin (1996), writing thirty years later, suggests that two additional emphases should be added to reflect dominant trends in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1990s: prioritization and accountability respectively. While none of these emphases are unique to any level of government, and certainly evidence of them can be found at every level, we will argue that the impetus for the latter emphases, just as for the first emphasis of control, appears to be coming from local government to a large extent.(1)

Rubin also emphasizes the importance of historical context as one looks at changes in American budgeting. Budget emphases depend upon the "time and circumstances in which the budget is drawn up" (Rubin, 1996: 112). We shall also argue, like Rubin and Schick, that this is an important observation since too often budgeting is considered a technical process removed from other ideas and forces current at a given time.


It is difficult looking back to imagine government without budgeting (Fleischman and Marquette, 1986). Unlike many other American institutions or practices, however, the concept of budgeting as we know it today did not come to the United States with the early colonists. Rather, it developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

At the turn of the century the United States was "the only great nation without a budget system" (Buck, 1929: 10). Congress raised and voted on the money needed to operate the national government in a more or less haphazard manner. The same characteristic was true of states, and local governments as well, with the exception that more state and local variations existed to any particular pattern due to their sheer numbers. In part this legislative dominance was due to the notion of separation of powers and the fear of a strong executive deriving from American colonial experience. The result was that budgeting, to the extent that it can be said to have existed in the sense we know it today, was the preserve of the legislative branch. This pattern was dominant at all levels of government in the United States. …