How would participatory budgeting cut spending?

The F-35 fighter, perhaps the most expensive weapon ever built. (Wikimedia Commons/Rennett Stowe)

The F-35 fighter, perhaps the most expensive weapon ever built. (Wikimedia Commons/Rennett Stowe)

Sequestration is surely a hard pill to swallow, but it’s proving to be even harder to regurgitate. Lawmakers failed to reach consensus on legislation that would have prevented the automatic spending cuts that went into effect on March 1 and have since failed to pass legislation to repeal them. Instead, earlier this month Congress passed a resolution to keep the government funded through September 30, which will take the threat of a government shutdown out of the picture while capping spending at sequestration levels. The cuts are here to stay.

However, the Republican bill also includes appropriations that significantly mitigate the effects of the cuts on the military and other areas hand-picked by those who crafted the legislation. A press release announcing the bills’ introduction states that “some changes to current law are needed to prevent catastrophic, irreversible or detrimental changes to government programs.”

The bulleted list that follows includes items such as additional funding for nuclear weapons modernization and federal prisons, a requirement that Border Patrol and the FBI maintain current staff levels, a directive that Immigration and Customs Enforcement must sustain its mandated capacity of 34,000 beds, and a provision prohibiting funding for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States.

Nowhere is there mention of the 575,000 women and children eligible for food assistance programs who will be turned away between now and October as a result of sequester cuts. Nor does the bill address the 100,000 low-income families that will lose housing vouchers, or the 3.8 million long-term unemployed workers who will see their benefits decrease by an estimated $130 per month. The consequences of cutting these programs apparently are not “catastrophic” or “detrimental” enough to warrant the kind of intervention that nuclear armament is receiving.

Another kind of budgeting process

Around the same time that Congress was cementing the sequester cuts into law earlier this month, residents of Vallejo, Calif., presented city council members with 63 proposals for projects they have developed as part of a participatory budgeting process.

Vallejo is a port city in the Bay Area that has been struggling since the Navy shut down its operations there in the late 1990s. It filed for bankruptcy in 2008 when a combination of the housing bust, the ensuing recession and the city’s already precarious finances resulted in a sharp economic downturn. In the following years, Vallejo has inched along a path to recovery, thanks in large part to a 1-percent sales tax that voters recently approved. But this is not your average case of tax-and-spend; over $3 million of the revenue is allocated to projects decided upon through a participatory budgeting process that is open to everyone in the community.

Collective decision-making about resource allocation is as old as humanity itself, but participatory budgeting began as a modern social movement in Brazil. In 1989, as an experiment, the government of Porto Alegre decided to turn one-fifth of the city budget over to residents to manage. Beforehand, only 49 percent of Porto Alegre’s population had access to sanitation services, but after eight years of participatory budgeting, 98 percent of residents had water and 85 percent were served by a sewage system.

In the decades since, the model has spread to dozens of countries, including Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Nigeria and India, to name a few. Participatory budgeting made its debut in the United States in 2009 when Joe Moore, a Chicago alderman, was inspired by a workshop he attended at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum to create a process by which residents of his district could decide how to spend $1.3 million in discretionary funds.

After months of organizing, 1,600 people in Moore’s district turned out to vote for the projects they wanted to receive funding. The winning projects ranged from bike lanes and traffic signals, to murals and community gardens, to street lights in areas where crime had been a problem. The district is now in its fourth cycle of participatory budgeting, and three more districts in Chicago have followed suit.

Participatory budgeting has also worked in New York City, where last year residents of four districts decided how to spend over $6 million. This year four more districts are on board, making a total of eight that are in the process of collectively crafting their budgets. As these experiments in economic democracy flourish, though, the federal government remains mired in a partisan tug-of-war.

Political games with poor people’s lives

With the House Republicans’ resolution and appropriations bill now in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski is attempting to add further appropriations that would ease the burden of across-the-board cuts for services other than those in the current bill. Even her proposal, however, includes protection for only such areas as agriculture, commerce, justice, science and homeland security — but not for the Department of Health and Human Services, which will have to administer cuts to food assistance programs, unemployment benefits and other social programs that so many of the most vulnerable people in the United States rely on.

Sen. Mikulski originally stated that she would also look into creating new rules around what she called “enhanced transfers,” which would have allowed all agencies to determine how to implement the cuts, enabling them to prioritize the most needed programs by cutting more from less critical ones. However, she backtracked because of staunch Republican opposition in the House.

These concessions are the result of Democrats’ determination to pass a bill that will avoid a government shutdown and thereby avoid the blame that would fall on their party if a shutdown were to take place. It’s also a matter of picking their battles; with competing budget proposals unveiled by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan last week, Democrats are giving up on the sequester cuts in order to have more leverage in the upcoming budget debate.

This political jousting is worlds away from the dialogues taking place in communities that have adopted participatory budgeting, where the process allows for more nuanced discussions about what the public really needs.

Ginny Browne, a community engagement coordinator for the Participatory Budgeting Project, has been involved in organizing the participatory budgeting process in Vallejo from the start. She describes how a recent spate of police shootings there has drawn public outrage, turning public safety into a polarizing issue.

Ordinarily “you either support the police or you don’t support the police, and there’s not much conversation between those two poles,” Browne explains. “One of the conversations that the [participatory budgeting] process has allowed participants to have, and has forced participants to have, is, ‘What do we mean when we say public safety? And what does it take to make our communities safe?’”

In Vallejo, after-school programs and support for homeowners facing foreclosure are some of the project ideas that budget delegates have presented as contributing to public safety. “The [participatory budgeting] process is giving folks a chance to look critically at the question of public safety and explore projects that address public safety that don’t just rely on the police and law enforcement.”

Participatory sequestration?

Imagine a federal budgeting process in which lawmakers and citizens could engage with one another over such questions as “What do we mean when we talk about homeland security? Does increasing the military budget make us safer?”

It’s hard to picture exactly how that process would work. Pam Jennings of the Participatory Budget Project says that participatory budgeting in its current form is designed for the community and municipal levels, not a sprawling federal government. But as difficult as it may be to envision people across the country collaboratively making decisions about federal appropriations, it is worth remembering that not very long ago people in Chicago, New York and Vallejo would have had just as much difficulty imagining such a process taking place in their communities.

One thing is certain: If more Americans were involved in allocating federal tax dollars, they wouldn’t allow the sequester cuts to happen the way they’re happening now. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that, when presented with a list of specific programs, the majority of Americans — including both Democrats and Republicans — said that funding should increase or remain at the same level on each. Out of 19 programs, ranging from education to military spending, the only one respondents did not overwhelmingly favor maintaining or increasing funding for was foreign aid.

Public opinion, however, pales in its ability to influence congressional decision-making when compared to the lobbying of powerful industries like those that depend on military spending. According to the Center For Responsive Politics, defense industry lobbyists spent nearly $130 million wooing lawmakers in 2012. That’s in addition to over $27 million in campaign contributions that individuals and PACs associated with the industry made to both Democratic and Republican candidates. The result is a set of priorities so skewed that, despite an internal report detailing extensive problems with new F-35 jet fighters, the Pentagon awarded a $334 million contract to assemble 29 more F-35s. The department announced the decision hours before sequestration went into effect.

Hardly relevant, it seems, is the fact that while some polls suggest that Americans support current levels of military spending, others indicate that a majority of Americans would support decreasing the military’s budget.

For now, legislators will mitigate the effects of sequestration only for areas of spending in which the most powerful players have a vested interest. But participatory budgeting offers the potential for communities across the country to do some mitigating of their own. As austerity becomes a reality across the United States, this model may present ways not only of allocating resources to meet community needs but of creating deeper relationships and stronger networks, of engendering conversations that challenge old assumptions and of agreeing on more sensible priorities for the future.

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