So we now have President Trump’s first budget, weighing in at $4.1 trillion. Medicaid, food stamps, health care are up for big cuts. Defense spending would rise. One thing all sides agree on: it won’t pass as proposed. It’s the beginning, not end, of the process. Which is as it should be. The budget is, after all, a fiscal blueprint of the society we wish to be, or can afford to be. If we can’t agree on those, how can we easily agree on a budget?
Let’s talk a little history. Budgeting didn’t emerge as a discipline until the early 20th century. Before that, government officials just spent (or mis-spent) what they wanted, often on cronies, and then tried to figure out where their operating and capital funds would come from. According to a 2008 scholarly survey by Baruch’s own Public Affairs Prof. Daniel W. Williams and Mordecai Lee of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the three pioneers of American urban reform, William H. Allen, Henry Bruère and Frederick A. Cleveland were among the earliest advocates of budgeting. The so-called ABCs went on to found the New York Bureau of Municipal Research that became the Institute of Public Administration. https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/ipaprocessing/2014/12/how-it-all-began-with-a-scandal-of-course/
The trio seemed aware of a groundbreaking exhibit on budgeting in the jewel box Saxon city of Dresden in 1903. Within five years, budget exhibits began cropping up in American cities. In 1908 New Yorkers thronged a two-week budgeting show in the City Investing Building at 165 Broadway that included discussions with city officials.
By 1916, the Bureau of Municipal Research had psyched out the budgeting process, noting how the proposed budget was intended to stir controversy by drawing fire from opponents, in order to expose their arguments.
Indeed, the BMR went on, the treasurer presenting the budget “shells the ranks of the opposition to locate their batteries; to get those who had taken sides against the government to fire off all the ammunition which accumulated since the last meeting of the assembly.”
So, now, a century later, get ready for the 2017 budget firefight.
Meanwhile, see what an engaged citizenry back then looked like, from the archives of the New York Public Library:
We located more images of the budget exhibits at the New York City Department of Records:
The New York City Public Design Commission has its own archives: