The shift toward a greater emphasis on top-down budgeting has the effect of reducing some of the major features of incrementalism: strategy and negotiation and the predictability of well-established roles and decisions at the budgetary margins. Given the chronic feature of the federal deficit, top-down budgeting has become a larger and larger part of the budgetary landscape.
How does top-down fiscal management accommodate rights-based budgeting? Not very easily. Having rights means spending more not less -- even when the right is a procedural guarantee and does not mandate additional expenditures. Rights are anathema to budget control because they invariably mortgage the future. It is not surprising then, that top-down budgeting encourages close scrutiny of new entitlements. More broadly, rightsbased budgeting requires an expanded vision of budget management.
One feature of the expansion is the management of rights via the management of the budget. A change in Social Security toward a means-tested benefit -- admittedly a politically volatile idea -- would reflect a changed perspective toward rights and their budgetary ramifications.
Homelessness, in the absence of court-ordered, procedural due process guarantees, has other budgetary options. For example, intergovernmental grant formulas that cap the federal or state share could be used to manage spending. An entitlement alternative that restricts benefits to a subset of the homeless population (such as children) is a second way -- though probably a less-effective one -- of controlling costs. The point, nevertheless, is that it may make a big difference whether rights drive budget decisions or whether budgets define rights. Budgeteers prefer it the second way.
Finally, rights-based budgeting muddies the budgetary waters. Consider the courts once again. Even though judges do not make budget decisions (a small number of judges have actually required that specific spending be made or taxes be raised), they can help to shape options. As silent partners in the budget process, the courts subtly undermine what was once a neat and tidy budget process. The simple reason for this is that they are not bound by fiscal constraints. As a result, the old hallmark of budgeting, incrementalism, with its emphasis on stability and predictability, does not apply when the courts enter the budgetary game. The discipline of the game is therefore shattered.
Top-down budgeting can be interpreted as a structural response to the loss of this discipline. But top-down budgeting, though appropriate for shaping broad budget policy, is less suited for managing rights-based programs. The reason, at root, is that rights-based political claims are unconcerned with matters fiscal; they push for more spending, not less. More than two decades ago, in the late 1950s, Paul Appleby summarized the budget function as one that was "preponderantly negative" (Appleby as quoted in Schick 1987). His point was that the budget examiner had an uncompromising role to play because there was no shortage of budgetary claimants. The budget norm that Appleby referred to was built on the conceptual and behavioral structure of incrementalism. Rights-based claims within severely constrained fiscal climates have eroded the value of incrementalism as the best way to make budget decisions and the most plausible explanation for how budgeting works.
JEFFREY D. STRAUSSMAN
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Schick, Allen, 1980. "Budgetary Adaptations to Resource Scarcity." In Charles H. Levine and Irene Rubin, eds. Fiscal Stress and Public Policy, pp. 113-134. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
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-----, 1992. The New Politics of the Budgetary Process. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.
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