Here’s a Bush administration idea that seems, at first glance, like a good one, but in fact is pretty stupid. In the administration’s next budget, all federal agencies are formally rated on five criteria, and their funding is adjusted based on their level of performance. In other words, agencies that are (according to the standard established by the Bush administration) well managed and efficient, will get budget increases, while those who aren’t will lose funding.

The first and most obvious problem is with the standard itself. Who decides how the departments will be graded? Who grants the grades? Is it really possible or likely that these grades will be given in a nonpartisan, unbiased manner? Or will programs that are favorites of conservatives get good grades, and those that they dislike get bad ones?

The second problem, which is more significant, is whether this carrot and stick approach makes sense at all. It seems to me that performance and level of funding are completely independent of one another. If a federal agency isn’t serving a useful purpose, but very efficiently manages its funding and is well managed, it still should be eliminated. On the other hand, some critical agencies may be doing their jobs very badly, and thus should merit a funding increase and a restructuring in order to insure that they are doing their jobs. If you look at this at a local level, if the police department is incompetent or corrupt, do you just cut its funding and move on, or do you try to figure out what’s going wrong and give it the budget needed to do its job?

The reason we know this system is an utter and complete joke is that the Bush administration understands and acknowledges exactly what I’m saying. Despite the fact that the Pentagon got poor marks in four out of five categories on which federal agencies are judged, Bush has them slated for a big budget increase, and is doubling the cash for homeland defense on top of that. No matter how badly the Pentagon is run, they’re getting their money, because defense is a big priority right now. The question is why the president isn’t willing to judge other federal agencies on the same criteria.