Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is one of the bill's sponsors.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is one of the bill's sponsors. Andrew Harnik/AP file photo

Bipartisan Bill Would Make It Easier for the Public to See How Agencies Plan to Spend Their Budgets

House and Senate panels advanced the legislation last week.

House and Senate panels reported a bill to the full chambers last week to make agency spending more transparent. 

The measure (H.R. 4894 and S. 2560) would amend the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act to increase public access to federal agencies’ congressional budget requests by putting them on various federal websites. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported the bill to the full Senate on March 2 and the House Oversight and Reform Committee reported it to the full House on March 4.

“Government accountability is a fundamental principle in a democracy, and knowing the government’s accounts–how agencies plan to spend taxpayer funds–is the bedrock for such accountability,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a nonprofit advocacy organization, upon the bill’s introduction. “Senators Gary Peters, [D-Mich.,] and Rob Portman, [R-Ohio,] have rightly decided to hold the government to account by introducing legislation to require all its spending plans to be available online in one spot so that everyone can see how they intend to spend taxpayer funds.” Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Doug Collins, R-Ga., co-sponsored the House version of the bill.

If enacted, the legislation would require all federal agencies to post their congressional budget justifications on their websites. The Office of Management and Budget would need to establish a public website to house all links to budget justifications and the Treasury Department would be required to post the agencies’ budget documents on USAspending.gov.

Currently, OMB only requires executive branch agencies to publish their congressional budget justifications online and its website just has the information from the White House. “The lack of a designated and structured database to access congressional budget justification reports makes it difficult to determine where a particular budget justification for a particular year may be located,” said a Senate committee report. “USAspending.gov currently hosts some agencies' congressional budget justifications, but the collection is not exhaustive.”

When the bill was introduced in the fall, 29 good government groups, nonprofits and unions wrote to congressional leaders that it “would provide needed transparency and accountability to agency spending proposals” and applauded the bipartisan pair of lawmakers who spearheaded the effort.

The co-signers cited a March 2019 report from Demand Progress that found some agencies were not consistently following OMB’s requirements to publish their congressional justifications on their websites. During fiscal 2018 and 2019, 21% of the 456 federal agencies and entities surveyed did not publish a congressional budget jurisdiction and another 6.1% published one for just one of the years.

“We do not know whether these agencies were required to publish a [congressional budget justification], or whether their justification might be aggregated under another agency that did not publish its report,” Demand Progress said, because “there is no publicly-available comprehensive list of agencies that must publish these justifications.” 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing the bill would cost less than $500,000 between 2020 and 2025 to cover administrative expenses. Additionally, any changes to agencies’ direct spending would be “negligible.”

The timing of the panels’ reporting of the bill is fitting. The appropriations process for 2021 started at the beginning of last month when the president submitted his $4.8 trillion budget request to Congress and Sunshine Week, a national awareness week for open government and transparency, starts on March 15. 

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