A Role for Program Assessment Rating Tool in the Future Federal Budget Crisis?
By Daniel Riggle
Grants Resource Center
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
When the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) appeared on the federal scene in 1993, many observers in the college and university research community wondered about its eventual impact on competitive grant program administration, both at the federal agency-level and for award administrators on college and university campuses. Designed as a means to make federal programs and program/project administrators more accountable for how taxpayer funds were invested for research, education, or development activities, GPRA outlined reporting requirements and a timeline by which the government sought to implement more stringent evaluative and assessment methods to accomplish greater overall accountability. As milestone dates within the legislation approached, many observers wondered how the Act would eventually affect programs of great interest to them and their institutions, as federal programs would come to require increased orientation toward results and more scrutiny in documenting project impacts.
Recalling that timeline for GPRA’s implementation, on September 30, 1997, federal agency heads began to submit to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) strategic plans for operation of their agencies and programs, leading, according to the Act’s stated purpose, to more efficient administration of those agencies and programs. These strategic, five-year plans were to include a number of items, such as mission statements for the agencies, general goals and objectives, outcome-related goals and objectives, descriptions of how to achieve goals and objectives, descriptions connecting general goals and outcomes-related goals, and descriptions of program evaluation criteria. Beginning on March 31, 2000, and on March 31st of each year thereafter, agency heads under GPRA were required to submit to Congress and the President a report on program performance for the previous fiscal year.
Once George W. Bush took office, his Administration saw GPRA as a tool that did not go far enough to promote efficiency or to curtail waste in government investment patterns in across agencies and programs. In fact, releasing the President’s Management Agenda in FY 02 began a process of what the Administration viewed as improving upon GPRA, through measures that have given oversight of federal discretionary spending either more, or perhaps sharper, administrative “teeth” than GPRA had provided. Under different budgetary circumstances than the nation now faces, one might easily understand this more conservative approach to federal management as reflecting an expected ideological shift. However, in the present and near-future environment for federal investment, it is also easy to consider these administrative devices as means to eliminate discretionary programs on scale not seen before. Consider how the post-9/11 federal funding climate has witnessed priorities shifting to homeland security initiatives, and, since the Afghanistan and Iraq military conflicts, to wartime defense spending at levels unknown in U.S. history.
These current events and their economic impacts on federal spending, as they contribute to record federal deficits and a skyrocketing national debt, while also co-existing with (and probably adding to) a stagnating U.S. economy, will profoundly (and indefinitely) alter future government investments in competitive grant and cooperative agreement programs. Taken together, military- and national security-related spending increases, alongside the expanding federal deficit and national debt, will necessitate continued channeling of federal funds from competing research, education, and community-based initiatives, producing a most discouraging situation for those interested in such federally-sponsored academic research and education activities.
In good part, according to a growing number of observers of federal spending and the Bush Administration’s approach to it, instituting the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) on July 16, 2002, truly gave program assessors “teeth” where GPRA had seemingly provided none, putting selected federal programs under an assessment microscope and, depending upon an assessment’s outcome, determining their funding future, or their need to exist. Introducing PART, OMB director, Mitchell Daniels, said that
considerable time and effort developing and updating their Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) plans and reports on an annual basis. The program assessment effort presents an opportunity to inform and improve agency GPRA plans and reports, and establish a meaningful, systematic link between GPRA and the budget process. This effort will also help identify specific performance measures that could support budget and management recommendations and efforts. Through this process, OMB will work with agencies to maintain measures in GPRA materials that are useful and eliminate reporting burdens that have no utility [see http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budintegration/part_assessing2004.html].
A full list of those programs assessed through the application of PART in its first year appears at the OMB Web site referred to above, and the director’s idealistic language notwithstanding, critics have weighed in as to the potential, or actual, negative impact of the PART on programs or groups of programs at federal agencies. For example, according to the Consortium of Social Science Organizations (COSSA) Washington Update (March 8, 2004, see http://www.cossa.org/Update.htm), the Bush Administration appears ready to use PART as a means for undercutting federal support for many research and education programs (among them many social science research programs) that conservatives see as being wasteful. The concern, then, in the COSSA analysis, is that PART will be employed as a means to undervalue, and withdraw support for, those programs unpopular with a conservative Administration or Congress, or, in the present funding climate, a government that has more important priorities, such as tax cuts, war-related expenses, and anti-terrorism, with which to deal.
Another critique of the PART, appearing in NP Action’s OMB Watch, notes that it fits in with a pattern of “shrinking of government,” which “is a long-standing conservative goal.” Similar to the COSSA analysis, NP Action’s editorial sees PART, “along with tax cuts, demolition of regulatory standards, and increasing efforts to devolve federal responsibilities,” as the means by which the current Administration will seek, continually, to shrink the federal government [see http://www.npaction.org/article/articleview/397/1/160].
It is impossible to gauge, right now, how great a role PART will play in helping to shrink federal investment in non-defense or non-homeland security programs or projects. In fact, the impacts of these vast priority shifts have just begun to be felt across funding agencies. Some facts are currently known, and these will indeed negatively affect future federal discretionary spending in a huge way. For example, on November 6, 2003, President Bush signed into law (P.L. 108-106) emergency supplemental appropriations for defense and for the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2004, which amounted to some $66 billion kept “off-the-books” of the discretionary spending budget. How long such an “investment” can be kept off-the-books remains to be seen, but it is certain that this sum will affect will (or will not) be available for future federal spending on non-profit- and university-based research and education.
Past rumors had suggested that the Bush Administration would seek (and Congress would probably approve) some $80 billion to pay for similar, war-related expenditures covering FY 05. In fact, as far back as February of 2004, in its FY 05 federal research and development analysis, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) suggested that “Pentagon officials” already indicated that DOD would need $50 billion by summer’s end to pay for operations up to that point [http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/dod05p.htm]. Anyone who has monitored congressional hearings or news releases related to the costs of the current war knows that $50 billion is close to what the Pentagon will request, but perhaps long before summer’s end. Does anyone inside or outside of the Administration wonder about the impact of some $130 billion on future spending for education, non-defense research and community development—once said dollars make their way onto the books?
The question now is not where the budgetary axes will one day fall, but where such chopping is already taking place. Consider the effects already in evidence. For example, on December 19, 2002, when President Bush signed into law the NSF Reauthorization Act, authorizing NSF’s budget to double by 2007, many critics questioned whether such a doubling would actually take place. It would have been naïve, perhaps, especially after September 11, 2001, and the military engagements thereafter, to imagine NSF’s budget rising from $4.79 billion (its FY 02 level), to $9.84 billion in FY 07, as the Act would have allowed. Still, many observers hoped that the Act signaled a long-term commitment to academic research and education in the sciences.
Instead, it appears the opposite will occur for some time to come. Stagnant or falling accounts for academic research and education programs are already becoming the rule. For FY 05, the Administration has requested just a 2.9 percent increase for NIH, and only 3 percent for NSF, barely sufficient to keep up with inflation, if even that. According to AAAS’s data, the total federal investment in basic and applied research would remain “flat” (up 0.2 percent) in FY 05, continuing a trend that began three years before. This occurs alongside defense-related expenditures for research and development, representing 57 percent of all federal R&D investments, and earmarks that rose 32 percent to $1.9 billion, while discretionary spending across the government increased by only 3 percent [http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/ca04high.htm#ear]. Once the full effects of current spending on the wars and homeland security become clearer, the role of PART in diminishing the federal role in academic activities might also emerge. In the meantime, the academic research community should prepare for increasingly austere budgets for programs on which they’ve come to rely, as well as greatly elevated competition for those dwindling federal grant funds for a long time to come.