How to Connect Readers with the Trillions in Federal Spending

By Chris Adams

Damian Paletta has spent a career writing about the federal budget. But what he thinks of as “budget stories” and what you might be picturing are far different things.

“Budget stories are the best stories,” said Paletta (bio, Twitter), who has covered budget stories for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and is now economics editor at the Post. “Every great story is a budget story, at its core.”

The reason is simple: Everybody has a vested interest in the budget because of the taxes they pay and the benefits and services they receive. Name a topic and Paletta can find the money angle in it: immigration, health care, homelessness, climate change, Syria policy.

“A lot of us went into this business because we were afraid of numbers,” he said. But the numbers, he pointed out, are only a detail in the story. The story itself might be about conflict or corruption.

In a session with Paul Miller fellows, Paletta and Paul Krawzak of CQ Roll Call (bio, Twitter) laid out the basics of how to cover the budget – and how to find those budget-based stories that are about more than the numbers.

Krawzak gave a detailed tutorial of how the budget process is supposed to work, with nuts-and-bolts explanations of key terms – from fiscal year vs. calendar year, to budget authority vs. outlays, to discretionary spending vs. mandatory spending, and several others.

The budget process almost never works as it is supposed to, and then sometimes it breaks down, as it did in 2019 with a partial government shutdown. Krawzak also described what a “shutdown” actually means – and how much of the government continues to function anyway.

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