Dear America…How To Read A Budget Request

Dear America

I’ve spent the morning looking at a small slice of Trump’s FY2018 budget request…specifically Trump’s budget for the Department of Homeland Security. It may be pretentious of me, but I’m gonna assume that the vast majority of you haven’t read it. I am also going to presume that you will never read it…just like you never read Obama’s or W’s. Reading a budget request…or an actual appropriations bill…requires a lot of patience and practice. The patience of Job comes to mind. Reading and understanding a budget request is an art form that is highly underrated. I imagine you have gotten your information concerning Trump’s budget request through your preferred media source…unfortunately the journalists and talking heads presenting you with budget request information haven’t read it either…any and all information they are conveying is based on summaries provided by other sources…or…if they are lucky…a smart intern that combed through it and wrote a synopsis for their news organization. The further you are away from the source the further you are away from the facts. At best, the information you are receiving is 2 to 3 sources away from the actual budget request. Like the old game of “telephone”…the further down the line you are…the more inaccurate the message becomes.

The reason so few actually read the budget request…or why people like me get paid to read it is because of this:

17 BR

It.Is.Fucking.Huge…and boring. The smaller book is the actual “budget request” and the larger volume is the appendix…which contains the facts and figures that support the information in the smaller volume.

Here is a not-so-quick or easy step-by-step way to read a budget request:

  1. Know the difference between the “budget request” and “appendix”…I explained that already.
  2. Know your timeline for reading it. If you are working on a deadline…and most of us who read budget requests due to our jobs have a deadline…know which part of the budget request pertain to your area of expertise…naturally there is a table of contents.
  3. Know where to find the budget request. The budget request is online…there is no excuse for anyone being ignorant of what is in the budget request because it is publicly available here.
  4. Remember…this is what Trump is requesting…this is not what the government is going to get in FY18…this is just what Trump is requesting.
  5. Know that the budget request is the completed work after ALL federal agencies, departments, and entities have submitted their budget information to Office of Management and Budget…OMB basically takes all their information and then writes the budget request…tailored to the president’s guidance.
  6. Know that all the information you might need MAY NOT be in the budget request…each federal agency, department, and entity has their own supporting documents…called Budget Justifications…these justifications are the foundation of any answer a federal entity is required to provide when asked “why do you need $1 billion for toilet seats?” by congressional appropriators. Those of us who read the budget request also read the justifications that are related to our areas of expertise.
  7. Know that there is never enough time to read the budget request cover-to-cover until you’ve already moved on to reading and reviewing actual appropriations bills…and by then you are basically comparing what Congress actually appropriated last year to the budget request to the proposed appropriations for this year…it’s a never ending cycle.
  8. Know that if there is a delay or issue with Congress appropriating funding…there will be a political kabuki dance of limited funding bills specifically targeted for a single federal department or group of departments OR there will be a continuing resolution that usually results in locking in present fiscal year funding at past fiscal year funding…this gives federal entities heartburn…because it is hard to prioritize and plan actions and programs based on limited or static funding…no one likes a continuing resolution…no one.
  9. Know that in the end you will have spent countless hours reading and researching budget request numbers that will be presented as one total in the actual budget request, a different number in the tables presented in the appendix, and then different numbers in the individual budget justifications…this is where the art of budget request reading comes in…you have to learn why each total in each document is different and how they are eventually reconciled…unfortunately any attempt on my part to explain that reconciliation would be even longer than this blog post…and you’d be considering suicide due to boredom before you are half way through it…trust me there is a reason…and sometimes that reason is “somebody made up a fucking number.”
  10. Make a decision…do you trust the source of your information on the budget request…or do you not really give a shit…because honestly those are the only reasons why you wouldn’t read it. Either you believe what others tell you what is in it or you really don’t care.

It’s not easy…it’s not fun…it’s not worth the effort…UNLESS you feel the need to educate yourself as a citizen…unless you feel the need to see how the present presidential administration prioritizes government funding. The budget request is undoubtedly the number one policy statement a presidential administration can make…all other governmental actions and policies flow out of the budget request. How Congress responds to the president’s budget request is the number one policy statement it makes in response to the President…and THIS is why reading the annual budget request is important…if you actually give a shit…


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