Each year, federal agencies provide Congress with funding requests that explain the resources needed to run programs and achieve their missions. These publicly available requests, called congressional budget justifications, are not collected into a structured central repository which makes locating particular budget justifications challenging for congressional offices, federal agencies, White House staff, and the American taxpayer.
This bill seeks to provide open and transparent data about how agencies allocate resources, a pillar of accountable government. It will make it possible for Congress and the American public to better understand what their government is allocating resources to and to provide capabilities to analyze how budget proposals, appropriations, and budget execution have changed over time. Relative to the federal government’s $4 trillion budget, the proposed legislation is a low-cost activity, estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost less than $1 million per year to implement.
WHAT IS THE CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET JUSTIFICATION ACT (S. 272)?
The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act (S. 272) directs federal agencies to publish more information online about federal spending. Specifically, the bill would require:
- Information on any funds made available to or expended by a federal agency be posted publicly.
- Agencies to post their annual congressional budget justifications in a structured data format and in a manner that enables users to download the reports in bulk.
- The White House Office of Management of Budget (OMB) to coordinate a publicly-available website with a list of each justification by agency and fiscal year.
WHAT ARE CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET JUSTIFICATIONS?
Congressional budget justifications (CJs) are documents submitted by Executive Branch agencies to support the annual President’s Budget Request, typically in February. The justifications are intended to be plain-language explanations for how agencies propose to spend funding that they request from congressional appropriators, core priorities and performance goals, and a summary of past performance.
WHAT PROBLEM DOES THE CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET JUSTIFICATION TRANSPARENCY ACT SEEK TO SOLVE?
Agency budget justifications contain a wealth of information about agency performance and priorities but are published as large, unwieldy documents. Currently, agencies are only required to produce a machine-readable summary table for the budget submission, meaning many data elements and core features of the justification are not captured.
The absence of consistent, machine-readable data means the American public, congressional offices, third-party intermediaries, and even OMB staff must manually review and transpose information in the budgets for relevant analysis. Moreover, the lack of a structured database limits the accessibility of detailed budget proposals to those who know how to find them, which in turn limits transparency for the American public and clear opportunities for accountability and oversight.
WHAT ARE AGENCIES DOING NOW?
There is no publicly-available, comprehensive list of agencies that must publish CJs. However, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Demand Progress of 456 agencies, over 20% did not publish any CJs publicly. Only 13 agencies of those surveyed (3%) published their CJs online in both FYs 2018 and 2019. While all 24 Chief Financial Officers Act agencies (i.e., large agencies) were among those who did publish their CJs online, independent agencies were found to be especially difficult to locate, according to the survey. Demand Progress noted in their survey methodology that they found more than 40 alternative document titles. This lack of standards creates confusion, inhibits transparency, and causes roadblocks to those who need access to budget information to support decisions about resource allocation or to fulfill transparency and accountability goals.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF IMPROVING ACCESSIBILITY TO AGENCY BUDGET JUSTIFICATIONS?
Open and transparent data about how agencies allocate resources are a pillar that supports an accountable government. This bill will make it possible for Congress and the American public to better understand what their government is allocating resources to and to provide capabilities to analyze how budget proposals, appropriations, and budget execution have changed over time. Relative to the federal government’s $4 trillion budget, the proposed legislation is a low-cost activity, estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $500,000 per year to implement.
HOW WOULD CONGRESSIONAL APPROPRIATORS AND OMB STAFF BENEFIT FROM THIS BILL?
Staff across federal agencies, congressional offices, and even the White House budget office spend countless hours searching, collating, and repurposing content for budget formulation activities each year. Part of this exercise often requires agency staff to review old congressional justification materials to identify historical funding trends. By simply adjusting how information is published, staff supporting budget formulation and execution across agencies and branches of government will be able to more efficiently and accurately portray budgetary information to support decision-making on resource allocations. The same is true for reviewing and applying agency performance measures to promote effective performance management in the budget formulation and execution processes.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET?
OMB coordinates the federal budget formulation and execution processes. After annual budgets are developed and proposed funding levels agreed to within the Executive Branch, agencies are required to submit congressional justification materials for review and clearance by OMB staff. This requirement, established in OMB Circular A-11, dictates that agency justification materials align with the formal President’s Budget Request published annually by OMB.
OMB also requires agencies to publish justifications at a vanity URL (agencyXYZ.gov/CJ) following transmittal to Congress, unless exempted for national security purposes. However, while OMB publishes top-line budgetary information in the President’s Budget Request volumes, OMB does not provide a consolidated database or repository for agency justifications. OMB already publishes many other budget documents on a central website, and adding the CBJs to that site would be a useful resource for Congress, agency staff, journalists, watchdogs, and the general public.
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE BILL?
S. 272 passed the Senate in June 2020 and the House in August 2021. It is expected to be signed by the president in the coming days.
DOES THE LEGISLATION HAVE BIPARTISAN SUPPORT IN CONGRESS?
Both the House and Senate versions have a bipartisan set of sponsors. U.S. Representatives Mike Quigley (D-IL) and James Comer (R-KY) ) in the House, and Sens. Thomas Carper (D-DE) and Rob Portman (R-OH) in the Senate.
WHAT ORGANIZATIONS HAVE ENDORSED THE LEGISLATION?
Campaign for Accountability
Government Information Watch
National Taxpayers Union
Open The Government
R Street Institute Senior
Executives Association Society of Professional Journalists
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Union of Concerned Scientists