Monthly Archives: February 2017

The federal budget in the age of Trump: Round up the usual suspects

The New York Times says that “Popular Domestic Programs Face Ax Under First Trump Budget.” Those listed include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). With the exception of AmeriCorps, which wasn’t yet born, the rest are the usual suspects, which have been proposed for the chopping block on and off since David Stockman* was Director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1981. I’ve seen this movie before, and I’m highly confident that, after the Congressional inquisition is over, NEH, NEA and the rest will ride off from Capitol Hill like Keyser Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects.

You might be surprised to learn that Congress last passed an actual Federal budget in 1998! Since then, Congress has used a variety of legislative tricks to “pass” non-budget budgets, including Continuing Resolutions (CRs), department budget authorization bills, and budget reconciliation bills to enable senators and representatives to avoid going on the record voting for or against an actual budget. This whole mess is tied up with the headache-inducing need to pass a bill increasing the Federal debt limit every six months or so.

In March, we’ll get to experience this exercise in political theater again, as the Trump administration will likely propose a revised FY ’17 budget (not to be confused with FY ’18 budget coming along later in the year). As reported by the NYT and others, this revised budget will likely propose a decrease in FY ’17 budget authorizations for selected discretionary domestic Federal spending agencies/programs like NEA and its pals. This is opposed to the usual practice of “budget hawks” to propose reductions in the rate of increase in Federal spending, due to the Feds using baseline budgeting (another headache-inducing concept) rather than zero-based budgeting.

My guess is that few discretionary programs will receive actual cuts and none will be eliminated (see one of our most popular posts, “Zombie Funding—Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion,” to learn how Federal programs usually return from the dead). That’s because every Federal discretionary funding/grant program has constituencies in every Congressional District—along with an army of lobbyists.

Let’s use NEA as an example. NEA funds symphonies, theater groups, art museums, etc., everywhere. These are nonprofits, the boards and docent corps of which are composed mostly of well-off locals, who might be married to Congresspeople or their donors. They’re likely to be members of the same country clubs, churches/synagogues, and Chambers of Commerce as Congresspeople. That means Congressman Horsefeathers is not only going to be beaten up by lobbyists and donors but is going to an earful at the breakfast table.

As a young grant writer during the Reagan ascendancy, I learned that—despite the fevered rhetoric you’re going to soon hear and the attempt of the Trump administration to cut something—most grant programs will squeeze through. In contemplating Federal budget cuts, I use the Economic Development Administration (EDA) as my yardstick. EDA, the most overtly political of Federal grant-making agencies, has been around since 1965. Every so often, an administration or Congress threatens this small nimble dinosaur with a budget meteor, but EDA always dodges. I won’t take the latest budget battle seriously until EDA dies. I won’t bring up the real budget brontosauruses like HUD and the Department of Education. They’ve survived Presidents Reagan and Bush the Younger, as well Speaker Newt.

* Stockman now shows up in infomercials hawking various doomsday economic books (or gold), but he actually wrote a terrific political autobiography, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed. I read this in the mid-80s and it’s relevant once more.

Writing (still) requires coherent paragraphs

Last month I was working on a California State Preschool Program Expansion proposal, and California is one of those states with elaborate, bizarre curriculum requirements for every single person ages birth through 18. You may think I’m joking about “birth,” but you can actually look up California’s “Preschool Learning Foundations,” which extend from “Birth Through Kindergarten.”

Leaving aside the absurdity of “learning foundations” for two year olds—when I was two, I suspect that “eating without smearing food on face” was a major “learning foundation”—much of the material produced by California and the flock of vendors around educational programs is written in bullets, tables, fragments, and images. Some of this material is in complete sentences, like “Children use mathematical thinking to solve problems that arise in their everyday environment,” but surprisingly little is in paragraphs.

Much of the material around California’s school requirements is so disjointed that it’s practically unusable for proposals. Grant writers should experience this as a problem and an opportunity, because the number of people who can write sustained, long-form documents is small and may even be shrinking. We’ve written before about how “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Yet much of the modern written world consists of bullets, tables, fragments, and images; that’s true even in the education system, which is supposed to be teaching students how to concentrate and how to write clearly and at length. Real writing requires coherent paragraphs, and when states (and their vendors) don’t produce those paragraphs, someone else must step up and do so. Like grant writers.

Being able to write coherent paragraphs, even when the source material is sentence fragments, is (still) an important skill; it’s so important that I’ve actually begun assigning “The Writing Revolution” to students. Paragraphs require transitions and the effective use of “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.” Effective writing requires effective quotation, as you can see in the previous sentence. Yet bullet, tables, fragments, and images don’t require those things. That’s part of the reason they’re less satisfying to read—though they can be easier to write. Hence the proliferation of tables instead of prose.

But until funders ask for fragments rather than stories, you, the grant writer, must produce coherent paragraphs. This can be hard. I’ve written sentences, paragraphs, blog posts, articles, grant proposals, and books. The length of a document does not scale linearly; it scales exponentially (which is one reason lists and tables are easier than narrative paragraphs: they rely on the reader to fill in blanks and transitions). The longer a given, coherent document is supposed to be, the more challenging it is. That’s why I assign first-semester freshmen five-page papers and second-semester freshmen ten-page research papers, and that’s why senior theses are longer and more detailed. Students have to work up to the conceptually more challenging projects.

I’m not totally opposed to lists and tables in the right circumstances. Our links posts, for example, are a series of bullets. I don’t want to fetishize the paragraph. But I do want to observe that, when everyone else is going short, it can be beneficial for you to go long—and to know how to go long.

Despite the need to write stories and the human need to consume stories, I’ll also note that it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel for proposals. For example, if you’re working on an after school program or job training program that already has a curriculum available, the curriculum itself can become a large part of the project description—as long as you make sure the language matches the RFP’s language and as long as you can adapt the curriculum descriptions to paragraphs. You don’t need to reinvent everything, and if you’re a real grant writer you probably have neither the time nor the mental energy to do so. But you do need to make sure that the the arguments you make occur in paragraph form and that those paragraphs are logically linked together. If you can do that, you’ve got a skill few people do.