Tag: Appropriations

Government Spending Transparency: ‘Needs Improvement’ Is Understatement

Back in September, I rated Congress on how well it is publishing information about its deliberations and decisions. “Needs Improvement” was the understated theme.

Now we’re looking at the government’s publication of data that reflects budgeting, appropriations, and spending. “Needs improvement” isn’t just understated in this area. It’s really, really understated.

On the budgeting, appropriations, and spending transparency report card I’m putting out today, B+ is the best grade—and it goes to just half of one subject area. There are 2.5 Cs, 3 Ds, and 4 incompletes. This area needs improvement.

What is transparency, anyway? In my briefing paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I wrote about the publication practices that support transparency. They are: authority, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. That means putting good data out from a consistent source in sensible ways, and, especially, structuring the data so that computers can interpret it.

You know what the World Wide Web is? It’s a whole bunch of structured data. If you want the kind of breakthrough in transparency for government data that the Web was for communications, you want the data structured right.

Our draft structure for data in this area is in our “Conceptual Data Model of the U.S. Federal Government Budgetary Process.” (HTML version, Word version)

Structured data doesn’t really exist yet in the area of budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The one bright spot is the president’s annual budget submission, which includes some information in a workable structure, but there is much room for improvement even there.

Because I’m so nice, I’ve given a lot of “incompletes” where I could have—and some say should have—given Fs. Believe it or not, there is NO federal government “organization chart” that is published in a way computers can use. That’s one of the building blocks of computerized oversight, and its absence is easily rectified.

When we return to these issues in the summer or fall of next year, and review more formally how Congress and the administration have done on transparency, I expect these things to be fixed. (Fear the blog post!)

In the meantime, here’s a run-down of the grades and why they were given. A Hill briefing today might be available online at the page for the event. (It’s somewhat symbolic that the room we have on Capitol Hill is ill-equipped for live-streaming, but we’re going to try.)

I’ve alternated in this post between “I” and “we” because I’ve gotten so much help on this. People from OMB Watch, the National Priorities Project, and the Sunlight Foundation have helped a great deal with this project, to name a few—and omit many others! The grades, the commentary, the errors, the misstatements, and omissions are all mine. And there are going to be plenty of gaps in this work. That’s why this is a blog post and not a formal Cato publication.


Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Budgeting, Appropriations, and Spending

How well can the Internet access data about the federal government’s budgeting, appropriating, and spending? In consultation with transparency experts, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, rated how Congress and the administration publish key spending-cycle data in terms of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.

These criteria envision a world where there is one authoritative source for each category of information. Unfortunately, what spending data there is appears in a lot of sources that have grown up haphazardly. There might even be some sources we don’t know about. Future grades will undoubtedly reflect improvements in what researchers, reporters, websites, and the public at large can see and use, aided by their computers.

Agencies: I

Federal agencies are the “agents” of Congress and the president. They carry out federal policy and spending decisions. Accordingly, one of the building blocks of data about spending is going to be a definitive list of the organizational units that do the spending.

Is there such a list? Yes! It’s Appendix C of OMB Circular A-11, “Listing of OMB Agency/Bureau and Treasury Codes.” But this list is a PDF document that is found on the Office of Management and Budget website.

Believe it or not, there is NO federal government “organization chart” that is published in a way amenable to computer processing!

There are distinct identifiers for agencies in both the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Either of these could be published as the executive branch’s definitive list of its agencies. This fruit is hanging so low that a gopher could snack on it without leaving its hole, but nobody seems to have thought of publishing data about the basic units of the executive branch online in a machine-discoverable and machine-readable format.

A pathological excess of generosity spurs us to give this category an “incomplete” rather than a straight F. We expect improvement in publication of this data, pronto.

Bureaus: I

The sub-units of agencies are bureaus, and the same situation applies to data about the offices where the work of agencies get divided up. Bureaus have identifiers. It’s just that nobody publishes a list of bureaus, their parent agencies, and other key information for the Internet-connected public to use in coordinating its oversight.

Again, an “incomplete” in this area will quickly convert to an F if this gap in data publication is not soon rectified.

Programs: I

The work of the government is parceled out for actual execution in programs. Like information about their parental units, the agencies and bureaus, data that identifies and distinguishes programs is not comprehensively published.

There is some information about programs available in usable forms. The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance website (www.cfda.gov) has useful aggregation of some information on programs, but the canonical guide to government programs, along with the bureaus and agencies that run them does not exist.

This is a little bit heavier a lift than agencies and bureaus—the number of programs exceeds the number of bureaus by something like an order of magnitude (much as the number of bureaus exceeds the number of agencies). And it might be that some programs have more than one agency/bureau parent. But today’s powerful computers can keep track of these things—they can count pretty high! And the government should figure out all the programs it has, keep that list up to date, and publish it for public consumption.

Until it does, the program category gets an “incomplete” and the threat of a future F. (Or maybe a D thanks to the CFDA.)

Projects: D-

Projects are where the rubber hits the road. These are the organizational vehicles the government uses to enter into contracts and create other obligations that deliver on government services.

Some project information gets published—we finally have an item that is not incomplete—but the publication is so bad that we give this area a low grade indeed.

Information about projects can be found. You can search for projects by name on USASpending.gov, and descriptions of projects appear in USASpending/FAADS downloads. (“FAADS” is the Federal Assistance Award Data System), but there is no canonical list of projects that we could find. There should be, and there should have been for a long time now.

The generosity and patience we showed with respect to agencies, budgets, and programs has run out. There’s more than nothing here, but programs get a D-.

Budget Documents — Congress: D / White House: B+

The president’s annual budget submission and the congressional budget resolutions are the planning documents that the president and Congress use to map the direction of government spending each year. These documents are published authoritatively, and they are consistently available, which is good. They are kind-of machine-discoverable, but they are not terribly machine-readable.

The appendices to the president’s budget are published in XML format, which vastly reduces the time it takes to work with the data in them. That’s really good. But the congressional budget resolutions have no similar organization, and there is low correspondence between the budget resolutions that Congress puts out and the budget the president puts out. You would think that a person—or better yet, a computer—should be able to lay these documents side by side for comparison, but you can’t.

For its use of XML, the White House gets a B+. Congress gets a flat D.

Budget Authority—Congress: C- / Executive Branch: D

“Budget authority” is a term of art for what probably should be called “spending authority.” It’s the power to spend money, created when Congress and the president pass a law containing such authority.

Proposed budget authority is pretty darn opaque. The bills in Congress that contain proposed budget authority are consistently published online—that’s good—but they don’t highlight budget authority in machine readable ways. No computer can figure out how much budget authority is out there in pending legislation.

Existing budget authority is pretty well documented in the Treasury Department’s FAST book (Federal Account Symbols and Titles). This handy resource lists Treasury accounts and the statutes and laws that provide their budget authority. The FAST book is not terrible, but the only form we’ve found it in is PDF. PDF is terrible.

Congress can do a lot better, but because some of the publication basics are there, we give it a C-. The administration gets a D for publishing the obscure FAST book in PDF.

Ideally, there would be a nice, neat connection from budget authority right down to every outlay of funds, and back up again from every outlay to its budget authority. These connections, published online in useful ways, would allow public oversight to blossom.

Warrants, Apportionments, and Allocations: I

After Congress and the president create budget authority, that authority gets divvied up to different agencies, bureaus, programs and projects. How well documented are these processes? Not well.

An appropriation warrant is an assignment of funds by the Treasury to a treasury account to serve a particular budget authority. It’s the indication that there is money in an account for an agency to obligate and then spend.

Where is warrant data? We can’t find it. Given Treasury’s thoroughness, it probably exists, but it’s just not out there for public consumption. We’ve again generously given this area an “incomplete.”

An apportionment is an instruction from the Office of Management and Budget to an agency about how much it may spend from a treasury account in service of given budget authority in a given period of time.

We haven’t seen any data about this, and we’re less sure that there is some. There should be. And we should get to see it. Incomplete.

An allocation is a similar division of budget authority by an agency into programs or projects. We don’t see any data on this either. And we should. Incomplete.

Step up, Executive Branch, or we’ll convert these incompletes to very low grades, indeed…

Obligations: C+

Obligations are the commitments to spend money into which government agencies enter. Things like contracts to buy pens, hiring of people to write with those pens, and much, much more.

There are several different data sources that reveal obligations: FAADS/FAADS+ and CFDA, for example. But their numbers don’t match up, and—unless you’re going to have each agency uniformly publish its own data—obligations shouldn’t be published in different places. It’s hard to consider either one authoritative (even if the law says they both are). FAADS+/FPDS (via USASpending.gov), CFDA, and FPDS (the Federal Procurement Data System) are online and stable, but they are potentially incomplete because not all agencies may report to them. The use of proprietary DUNS numbers also weakens them in terms of availability.

Just sorting through all the acronyms can get you down. Ask data experts to get into the quality of each data source, and you’ll be boggled by the questions regarding which agencies’ obligations are reported at which source, whether given sources dumb down the data by excluding small dollar amounts or by aggregating data about smaller agencies. Some sources are more timely than others. Etc. etc. etc.

All these issues frustrate transparency. Data about obligations is not clean, complete and well documented. The ideal is to have one source of obligation data that combines the strengths of all the existing sources and that includes every agency, bureau, program, and project. With a decent amount of data out there, though, useful for experts, this category gets a C+.

Parties: D+

Of course, you want to know where the money is going. That is what we’re calling the “parties” category. (“Parties” sounds kinda fun, don’t it?)

Right now, reporting on parties is dominated by the DUNS number. That’s the Data Universal Numbering System, which provides a unique identifier for each business entity. It was developed by Dun & Bradstreet in the 1960s. It’s very nice to have a distinct identifier for every entity doing business with the government, but it is not very nice to have the numbering system be a proprietary one.

Parties would grade well in terms of machine-readability, which is one of the most important measures of but because it scores so low on availability, its machine-readability is kind of moot. Until the government moves to an open identifier system for recipients of funds, it will get weak grades on publication of this essential data.

Outlays: C-

For a lot of folks, the big kahuna is knowing where the money goes: outlays. An outlay—literally, the laying out of funds—satisfies an obligation. It’s the movement of money from the U.S. Treasury to the outside world.

Outlay numbers are fairly well reported after the fact and in the aggregate. All you have to do is look at the appendices to the president’s budget to see how much money has been spent in the past.

But outlay data can be much, much more detailed and timely than that. Each outlay goes to a particular party. Each outlay is done on a particular project or program at the behest of a particular bureau and agency. And each outlay occurs because of a particular budget authority. Right now these details about outlays are nowhere to be found.

Now, there are plenty of people inside the government who are very familiar with the movement of taxpayer money in the government. They will be inclined to say, “it’s more complicated than that,” and it is! But it’s going to have to get quite a bit less complicated before these processes can be called transparent.

The time do de-complicate outlays is now. It’s another feat of generosity to give this area a C-. That’s simply because there is an authoritative source for aggregate past outlay data. As the grades other areas come up, outlay data that stays the same could go down. Waaaayyy down.

Make-Believe Defense Cuts

Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee Republican staff released a video using the anniversary of September 11 to argue for higher military spending while pretending that lately we have cut the defense budget. Chris Preble and I rebutted these outlandish claims, and Evan Banks made our comments into a cool video:

 

Hawks like HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA)—who thinks that “power in benevolent hands is a virtue, not a vice,”—pretend that we are about to slash military spending thanks to the Budget Control Act, the deficit deal legislated early last month. Reporters abet them by repeating the White House PR myth that the bill’s security budget cap will cut Pentagon spending by $350 billion over ten years, and writing that the sequestration provision will probably cut another $500 billion. But as I explained here, the BCA will likely produce either a miniscule defense cut in the near term or no cuts at all. That is because I consider a “cut” to mean spending less than we do now, not less than plans say, because agencies other than defense can absorb the cuts required by the security cap, and because the bill encourages lawmakers to move capped base defense funds into the uncapped war bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s proposed funding levels (302b allocations in budget speak) released earlier this week bear out those concerns. Because they come after the BCA, the Senate spending levels are likely to guide those set by the House. Compared to 2011, the committee would cut just under $3 billion from the base defense budget, which is less than one percent. That cut comes entirely from the military construction and family housing account, which was recently bloated by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. The senators get another chunk of the $4.5 billion in security spending cuts required by the BCA from State, which would lose $3.5 billion, and Homeland Security, which loses a half billion. The National Nuclear Security Administration and the Veterans Administration get minor increases. For more on these allocations, see Stimson’s The Will and the Wallet blog, especially Matthew Leatherman and Russell Rumbaugh’s recent posts.

So that’s a minor defense cut, right? Maybe not. The Senate appropriators seem to have slipped a larger amount of base defense spending into the war bill (Overseas Contingency Operations funding). The committee’s markup press release brags that it fully funded the president’s war request of $117.8 billion, but then claims that they cut $6.6 billion from that request by trimming funding for U.S. and native forces in Afghanistan. What that most likely means is that the committee, probably in league with the Pentagon, cut the war bill by that amount and shifted the same amount over from the base, keeping the war bill flat and maintaining the fiction of a minor base defense cut. We won’t know for sure until the appropriations bills are published.

The longer term prospects for the BCA cutting defense spending are a story for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the prospects of the bill’s current spending limits staying in place for ten years are slim. Future Congresses easily free themselves from legislative bonds set by prior ones, and democracies with two-to-six-year election cycles can’t stick to ten-year plans.

The (Beginning of the) End of the Shameful U.S. Cotton Deal?

Heartening news from the Appropriations Committee yesterday: they voted to cut aid to farmers generally, and to make significant changes to an egregious cotton program. But first, some background.  You’ll recall the embarrassing deal made by the Obama administration last year to head off Brazil’s right to impede American exports in retaliation for WTO-illegal cotton support. The United States is, in other words, now sending almost $150m worth of “technical assistance” and “capacity building” funds to Brazil, just so we can continue to subsidize American cotton growers without penalty (so much for U.S. promotion of the rule of law in international commercial relations). Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) tried to end that deal earlier this year, but to no avail. Big Ag’s friends in Congress argued, unfortunately successfully, that any changes to the cotton bribes should be dealt with in the context of the 2012 Farm Bill, and by the agriculture committees (good luck with that).

But yesterday, the Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to take the fiscal 2013 payment to Brazil from funds that would normally go to supporting U.S. cotton growers. According to an article [$] in the Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Flake argued that “American cotton growers should pay the bill since the United States was making the payment on their behalf.” Well played, sir.  Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) filed an amendment that would send the FY2012 cotton payment to the Women’s, Infants and Children nutrition program instead.

The Committee also voted to lower the income eligibility cap to $250,000 AGI.

The CQ article did contain this worrying footnote, however:

Support for the amendments may be tenuous — especially if lawmakers cannot hide behind the anonymity of a voice vote. After winning the voice vote in committee, Flake sought a roll call, prompting appropriators of both parties to suggest that he did not need the recorded vote. Flake took their advice and demurred.

 Leglislators are usually shy about publicizing their positions only when they think it could get them in political hot water, so let’s not uncork the champagne yet.

House Approps Strips TSA of Strip-Search Funds

The fiscal 2012 Department of Homeland Security spending bill is starting to make its way through the process, and the House Appropriations Committee said in a release today that “the bill does not provide $76 million requested by the President for 275 additional advanced inspection technology (AIT) scanners nor the 535 staff requested to operate them.”

If the House committee’s approach carries the day, there won’t be 275 more strip-search machines in our nation’s airports. No word on whether the committee will defund the operations of existing strip-search machines.

Saving money and reducing privacy invasion? Sounds like a win-win.

Your Tax Dollars at Work (1)

The District of Columbia pays outside lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars, but its top in-house lobbyist, who heads a staff of nine, doesn’t know about them:

The District pays outside lobbyists, who were hired when Adrian M. Fenty (D) served as mayor, but their work has attracted little notice.

U.S. Senate records show that Mitch Butler — a former Interior Department official in the Bush administration — has lobbied on behalf of the District since October 2009 on “public lands issues” and “land development.” Through the end of 2010, the city paid Butler at least $100,000 for his efforts.

Separately, the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development has paid the firm Van Ness Feldman $200,000 since November 2009 for “Anacostia Waterfront Initiative appropriations, St. Elizabeths development matters and federal land transfers,” according to registration forms.

Neither [Del. Eleanor Holmes] Norton nor Janene D. Jackson, the director of the District’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs, was aware the city had lobbyists on the payroll until they were informed by a reporter.

Maybe if nobody knows about them, the city could save a few bucks by terminating their contracts. But then again, maybe the best lobbyists are the ones who slip money silently out of the appropriations process and then melt away in the night, drawing no attention to themselves.

House Debates Spending—-and REAL ID Is on the Chopping Block

It’s a good thing for Congress to have an open debate on the bill that would fund the government from March 4th through the September 30 end of the 2011 fiscal year. The alternative is for the bill to be written and the political log-rolling to be done entirely behind the scenes. Open debate of the bill and amendments requires at least some level of discussion about various projects and programs rather than spending decisions being based solely on raw political power. And it gives the public some chance to have a say.

The debate may include an amendment to strip funding from the REAL ID Act, our deplorable national ID law. As I wrote here before, money spent on REAL ID is waste. That money should be put to better uses, including deficit reduction. No future money should go to the national ID boondoggle, and ultimately REAL ID should be repealed once and for all.

Amendment #277 (find it on this page, scroll down…) would add the following language to the FY 2011 spending bill:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for the implementation of the REAL ID Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-13).

Congratulations are due to David Price (D-NC) for highlighting this issue. A national ID would not provide security gains that come anywhere close to the costs of creating a national ID and living under a national ID system. People who desire a national ID for immigration control conveniently forget or omit that natural-born citizens would be required to have and carry a national ID while illegal immigrants work various ways to defeat any of the utterly porous “internal enforcement” systems that restrictive immigration policies have made plausible. A national ID would be used not just to control access to working, but to housing, health care, financial services, and more. In short, it would make the country less free.

I’ll report here what happens with this amendment and the debate on it, which is a debate worth having.

Republican Sellout Watch

Grousing about the GOP’s timidity in the battle against big government will probably become an ongoing theme over the next few months. Two items don’t bode well for fiscal discipline.

First, it appears that Republicans didn’t really mean it when they promised to cut $100 billion of so-called discretionary spending as part of their pledge. According to the New York Times,

As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.

This is hardly good news, particularly since the discretionary portion of the budget contains entire departments, such as Housing and Urban Development, that should be immediately abolished.

That being said, I don’t think this necessarily means the GOP has thrown in the towel. The real key is to reverse the Bush-Obama spending binge and put the government on some sort of diet so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. I explain in this video, for instance, that it is simple to balance the budget and maintain tax cuts so long as government spending grows by only 2 percent each year.

It is a good idea to get as much savings as possible for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, to be sure, but the real key is the long-run trajectory of federal spending.

The second item is the GOP’s apparent interest in retaining Douglas Elmendorf, the current director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Many of you will remember that the CBO cooked the books last year to help ram through Obamacare. Under Elmendorf’s watch, CBO also was a relentless advocate and defender of Obama’s failed stimulus. And CBO under Elmendorf published reports saying higher taxes would improve economic performance.

But Elmendorf’s statist positions apparently are not a problem for some senior Republicans, as reported by The Hill.

The new House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), gave a very public endorsement of the embattled head of the Congressional Budget Office during his first major speech as committee head Wednesday night. …“You’re doing a great job at CBO, Doug,” Ryan said after receiving the first annual Fiscy Award for his efforts at tackling the national debt. He added that he looked forward to crunching budget numbers with him in the future.

In the long run, the failure to deal with the problems at CBO (as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation) may cause even more problems than the timidity about cutting $100 billion of waste from the 2011 budget. Given the rules on Capitol Hill, it makes a huge difference whether CBO and JCT are putting out flawed numbers.

I’ve already written that fixing the mess at CBO and JCT is a critical test of GOP resolve, and I actually thought this would be a relatively easy test for them to pass. It is an ominous sign that Republicans aren’t even trying to clean house.