Why PART: The Institutional Politics of Presidential Budget Reform

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The George W. Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) follows a sequence of president-initiated budget reforms. The pattern is puzzling in that past reforms have tended to drain staff resources, failed to take hold, and yielded little or no political advantage. Given the track record of past initiatives, why has the Bush administration chosen to invest Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and agency resources in PART? This article briefly traces PART’s development and, placing the initiative in the context of contemporary research on the institutional presidency, attempts to make sense of the sustained appeal that rationalizing reforms have held across administrations. An account of reform as problem solving is developed. Set against the changing architecture of budget and administrative politics, reform is prompted by the interplay of evolving management concepts and two persistent problem types: Reform holds at least the potential for enhanced budget control where any leverage is valued and responds to the dilemmas of managing policy competence in the modern institutional presidency. The article concludes with a plea on behalf of institutional theories built on realistic models of how actors interpret and respond to the conditions prevailing in administrative politics.