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Policy Topics I: Federal Budget Policy


Units: 6


Why do we have such large budget deficits?  Why does Congress have such a hard time getting to agree on budget policy?  Why is there such pork barrel spending and government waste in Washington?

The answers to these questions, and others like them, require a detailed knowledge of the law and politics that lie behind the budget process, and the difficult policy choices that make up that process each year.

This course proceeds simultaneously along two tracks.  Track I will cover the law and procedures you need to understand how the federal budget is formulated and acted upon.  This sounds dull, but it isn’t!  For good reason, people call Congress the world’s greatest soap opera; and the budget process, while complex, is full of political warfare, the clashing of egos, and the constant pressure of voter demands.  Those who know the law and procedures can gain an advantage over others in the struggle for dollars and the way they get spent. While in this phase of the course, you will be assigned “mini-briefs”: short oral presentations on certain technical aspects of the budget.

Track II will introduce you to some of the important budget issues that have made life so difficult for Republicans and Democrats alike: working out an effective budget process, balancing the budget, funding budget priorities with limited resources, and deciding how much (and how) to tax workers and investors.  When we are working on Track II, you will develop “two-pagers,” the kinds of memoranda and statements written by congressional staff and political advisers. 

For a better grasp of budget policy than an eight-week course would normally allow, this seminar will also assign teams to investigate selected budget issues (e.g., Social Security funding), and report back to the seminar with their findings and, where appropriate, recommendations.  Each team will produce a written report, based on a detailed assignment provided by me, with a draft summary of the issues due to the rest of the seminar at noon on the day of the oral report:  Team members will deliver their 5-10 minute report, and field questions from the rest of the seminar in a hearing-like setting.  A sample student briefing assignment is attached to this syllabus.

Learning Outcomes

The overall objective of the course is to introduce you to the concepts and procedures that the major players in the federal budget and appropriations process (Members of Congress and their staffs, executive branch heads/staffs, trade association and think tank executives, etc.) need to know.  Because virtually all other policy areas (e.g., health care, environment, defense) have a budget component, you will be encouraged to bring your experience from other seminars and from your internships into this course. 

Prerequisites Description

There are no course prerequisites for this course (see "Pre-requisite Knowledge," below).