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The Language of Budgets: Good communication requires clarity in language

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

In the process of preparing the federal budget, there is an inherent bias at work. The members of Congress have strong pressure from special interest groups to increase the amounts allotted for spending, and the members will have made many promises during their election campaigns, particularly to large financial contributors in those campaigns, to promote favored expenditures. To accommodate these forces in the budget dialogue, Washington (including Congress and interested parties) developed a unique vocabulary that reinforces the spending bias by avoiding clarity.

For example, when you hear of a budget “cut” you might assume it refers to a reduction in an actual expenditure level of the prior year. But you would be wrong. It would actually refer to a reduction in a hypothetical budget number that is a spending level desired by a special interest group. In fact, it is probably an inflated number really intended to be just a starting point for negotiation. Then, in the dialogue, the special interest proponents will refer to any lower numbers as “draconian cuts by the curmudgeon opposition.” The opposition, of course, would be portrayed as guilty of denying a humane level of funding for their cause.

This loose language does not contribute to a disciplined approach to budget preparation.

It tends to obfuscate the issues, diverting Congress from a careful consideration of our financial priorities and national capabilities.

The new States’ Compact, in one of its first tasks, could invite professional public auditors to review the complete vocabulary used in developing federal budgets and recommend changes that would enable the language to convey clear and accurate concepts. After adopting this revised glossary of terms, the Compact could enforce its usage by reprimanding members of Congress for failure to embrace it in all exchanges with constituents as well as in debates in Washington, and repeated transgressions could result in formal reprimands and/or fines.

The public accounting profession is compelled to use precision in its audit reports on publicly traded companies, and missteps by them can have serious consequences. Since they must operate in this rigorous and well-regulated environment, they should be ideal candidates to create the new vocabulary for federal budgeting.

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