Tag: government transparency

OMB’s Laggard Transparency Record

On Monday, I wrote about the rapidly growing movement to replace the Office of Management and Budget with a different coordinator for standardized publication of government spending data. Why? Because the OMB hasn’t been standardizing and publishing data about government spending. That’s why.

Yesterday, Kaitlin Lee posted a three-part indictment of the OMB on the Sunlight Foundation blog, called “OMB’s Commitment to Data Quality: Too Little, Too Late.” Lee is deeply knowledgeable in this area and extraordinarily patient with the data problems the government throws at her. Credit what you read in her blog post.

(See also the Data Transparency Coalition’s rebuttal of OMB controller Danny Werfel, who appears to be guiding the Obama administration toward opposition to spending data transparency.)

The drumbeat for better data is growing louder, it’s pan-ideological, and it’s non-partisan. Will the OMB preempt the DATA Act by moving forward with real data reforms, or will Congress preempt the OMB’s role?

Data Transparency Coalition Debuts Today

Meet the Data Transparency Coalition.

The Washington Post’s Capitol Business blog reports this morning:

A small but growing collection of companies has formed a coalition that will push the federal government to establish a standard system by which agencies categorize their data. …

“Our members understand that if the government identified its data elements in consistent ways, there would be vast new opportunities for the tools that they are building,” Executive Director Hudson Hollister said.

Early supporters include Microsoft and data analysis and management firms Level One Technologies, Teradata, and BrightScope. I’m on their Board of Advisors. One of their early priorities will be to pass H.R. 2146, the DATA Act.

Cato has worked extensively on government transparency, beginning with our December 2008 policy forum entitled, “Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses.”

We have modeled much of the data that the government should be publishing in standardized formats (much more cheaply than CBO has estimated it would cost) and graded the quality of current data publication in the areas of congressional process and budgeting, appropriating, and spending. Expect improvements to come with this new organization joining other efforts.

Follow the coalition’s founder and executive director on Twitter @hudsonhollister, and you can Like their Facebook page, as well, to get updates that way.

Sunlight Before Signing, Year Three

In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama called for tax law reforms he says we need. Cato scholars have their doubts about much of what was in the speech, but my interest was piqued by the fact that he said, “Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away.”

You see signing them “right away” would again violate his 2008 campaign promise to post the bills sent him by Congress online for five days before signing them.

That’s a cheeky point, but it is time to focus on campaign promises and their honesty. The beginning of President Obama’s fourth year in office is roughly the beginning of his campaign for another term.

When I first began tracking President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise, I joked with friends that it was career gold because I could write hundreds of blog posts for the next four years without thinking a new thought. Well, it’s not quite that good. This is post thirty-six in the SBS series.

(Each character in that last sentence was a link to a previous post. You can spend a whole day reviewing them!)

Last Thursday, January 19th, was the end of President Obama’s third year, so it’s time to review how he’s been doing with Sunlight Before Signing. It was the president’s first broken promise, and at the mid-point of the term he had popped just above 50% in his compliance.

How has he done in the ensuing year?

Well … meh.

Of the 90 bills that became law in the last year, 55 got the Sunlight Before Signing treatment. That’s a 61.1% average, good enough to earn a middle-school student a D.

Number of Bills Emergency Bills Bills Posted Five Days
2009 124 0 6
2010 258 1 186
2011 90 0 55
Overall 472 1 247

Year three was stronger than the previous two, so President Obama’s overall Sunlight Before Signing record moves to 52.4%. That’s poor execution on a transparency promise that energized audiences on the 2008 campaign trail. But let’s dig a little deeper.

At the end of the second year, we did some analysis and graphing to explore the hunch that inconsequential bills get plenty of sunlight and the more important ones do not. We return to that analysis.

Our first look is at compliance with Sunlight Before Signing over time. The updated numbers show essentially the same as they did before. After a first year of outright failure, there has been improvement—nowhere near perfection, just improvement.

(You can also see that Congress’ output dropped dramatically in 2011. That’s a matter of indifference in terms of Sunlight Before Signing—and a good thing if you like limited government.)

Click on the image at right to see a chart of compliance and non-compliance by number of bills over time, then compliance as a percentage of bills over time, and, in the pie chart, that overall compliance figure.

We also investigated previously the hunch that important bills get less sunlight, while unimportant bills get more. Our first proxy for importance—a rough one—was the number of pages in the bills coming to the president. Generally speaking, longer bills are more important than shorter ones. The second set of charts (click on the left) show Sunlight Before Signing compliance and non-compliance over time by number of pages, compliance by percentage of pages, and overall compliance by number of pages. You can see that overall compliance drops well below 50% to about 36%.

Another proxy for importance is the number of final passage votes a bill got in the House and Senate. Generally speaking—and it’s definitely not always true—more important bills are voted on in the House, the Senate, or both. Less important bills go through on voice vote, unanimous consent, and so on. (Sometimes important bills go through without votes because the political balances are so carefully struck. That’s good for Congress “getting things done,” but not good for transparency or your ability to oversee the government.)

Go ahead and click on the image to the right and you can see the charts reflecting Sunlight Before Signing compliance and non-compliance over time with multipliers given to bills getting one or two final votes. That result is not so decisive: compliance drops by a small amount to about 50%.

There’s still time for President Obama to execute on Sunlight Before Signing. He could make a real run at transparency by signalling right now—today—that all bills will get five-days online before he signs them. If Congress wants to finish appropriations this year at the last minute. They had better do that at the last minute plus five days or else the government will shut down.

Maybe that’s a silly idea. Maybe no president in his right mind would do something like that. If so, consider that President Obama promised to do exactly that when he campaigned for the presidency. If he was being fanciful during his last campaign, voters might consider that during his next campaign, just as they consider the credibility of all candidates. President Obama’s transparency promises have been unparalleled. His results … quite paralleled.

Perhaps President Obama is going to limp to the next election without fulfilling Sunlight Before Signing. The president could still score some real transparency points by publishing a machine-readable organization chart for the executive branch, with agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects all uniquely identified for computer processing. That would be big, and it would not be that hard.

In the meantime, here are the Sunlight Before Signing results for all the bills signed into law during President Obama’s third year.

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted [(Linked)]? Posted Five Days?
P.L. 112-1, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small

Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes

1/28/2011 1/31/2011 [1/28/2011] No
P.L. 112-2, A bill to designate the United States courthouse under construction at 98 West

First Street, Yuma, Arizona, as the “John M. Roll United States Courthouse”

2/11/2011 2/17/2011 [2/11/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-3, The FISA Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 2/23/2011 2/25/2011 [2/23/2011 No
P.L. 112-4, The Further Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/2/2011 3/2/2011 [3/2/2011] No
P.L. 112-5, The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2011 3/3/2011 3/4/2011 No No
P.L. 112-6, The Additional Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/17/2011 3/18/2011 No No
P.L. 112-7, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011 3/30/2011 3/31/2011 3/30/2011 No
P.L. 112-8, The Department of Defense and Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act,


4/9/2011 4/9/2011 No No
P.L. 112-9, The Comprehensive 1099 Taxpayer Protection and Repayment of Exchange Subsidy

Overpayments Act of 2011

4/6/2011 4/14/2011 [4/7/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-10, The Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act,


4/15/2011 4/15/2011 [4/14/2011] No
P.L. 112-11, A bill to designate the Federal building and United States courthouse located

at 217 West King Street, Martinsburg, West Virginia, as the “W. Craig Broadwater Federal Building and United States Courthouse”

4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-12, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of Stephen M. Case as a

citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution

4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-13, To amend the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act to extend the termination

date for the Commission, and for other purposes

5/2/2011 5/12/2011 [5/2/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-14, The PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 5/26/2011 5/26/2011 No No
P.L. 112-15, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 12781

Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness, California, as the “Specialist Jake Robert Velloza Post Office”

5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-16, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part II 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-17, The Small Business Additional Temporary Extension Act of 2011 6/1/2011 6/1/2011 [6/1/2011] No
P.L. 112-18, The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 6/1/2011 6/8/2011 [6/1/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-19, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Shirley Ann Jackson as a

citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution

6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-20, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Robert P. Kogod as a

citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution

6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-21, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part III 6/28/2011 6/29/2011 [6/28/2011] No
P.L. 112-22, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at

4865 Tallmadge Road in Rootstown, Ohio, as the “Marine Sgt. Jeremy E. Murray Post

6/23/2011 6/29/2011 [6/23/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-23, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at

95 Dogwood Street in Cary, Mississippi, as the “Spencer Byrd Powers, Jr. Post Office”

6/23/2011 6/29/2011 [6/23/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-24, A bill to extend the term of the incumbent Director of the Federal Bureau of


7/26/2011 7/26/2011 [7/26/2011] No
P.L. 112-25, The Budget Control Act of 2011 8/2/2011 8/2/2011 No No
P.L. 112-26, The Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act of 2011 7/28/2011 8/3/2011 [7/28/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-27, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part IV 8/5/2011 8/5/2011 [8/5/2011] No
P.L. 112-28, To provide the Consumer Product Safety Commission with greater authority and

discretion in enforcing the consumer product safety laws, and for other purposes

8/5/2011 8/12/2011 [8/5/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-29, The America Invents Act 9/12/2011 9/16/2011 [9/12/2011] No
P.L. 112-30, The Surface and Air Transportation Programs Extension Act of 2011 9/16/2011 9/16/2011 No No
P.L. 112-31, A bill to designate the United States courthouse located at 80 Lafayette Street

in Jefferson City, Missouri, as the Christopher S. Bond United States Courthouse

9/22/2011 9/23/2011 [9/22/2011] No
P.L. 112-32, The Combating Autism 9/29/2011 9/30/2011 [9/29/2011] No
P.L. 112-33, The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 9/29/2011 9/30/2011 [9/29/2011] No
P.L. 112-34, The Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act 9/27/2011 9/30/2011 [9/28/2011] No
P.L. 112-35, The Short-Term TANF Extension Act 9/27/2011 9/30/2011 [9/27/2011] No
P.L. 112-36, The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 10/4/2011 10/5/2011 [10/4/2011] No
P.L. 112-37, The Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act of 2011 9/27/2011 10/5/2011 [9/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-38, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1081

Elbel Road in Schertz, Texas, as the “Schertz Veterans Post Office”

10/6/2011 10/12/2011 [10/6/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-39, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 5014

Gary Avenue in Lubbock, Texas, as the “Sergeant Chris Davis Post Office”

10/6/2011 10/12/2011 [10/6/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-40, To extend the Generalized System of Preferences, and for other purposes

10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-41, The United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-42, The United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act

10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-43, The United States-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-44, The United States Parole Commission Extension Act of 2011 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-45, To clarify the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior with respect to

the C.C. Cragin Dam and Reservoir, and for other purposes

10/31/2011 11/7/2011 10/31/2011 Yes
P.L. 112-46, The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-47, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 489

Army Drive in Barrigada, Guam, as the “John Pangelinan Gerber Post Office Building”

10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-48, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 281

East Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California, as the “First Lieutenant Oliver Goodall Post Office Building”

10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-49, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 45

Meetinghouse Lane in Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts, as the “Matthew A. Pucino Post Office”

10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-50, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 4354

Pahoa Avenue in Honolulu, Hawaii, as the “Cecil L. Heftel Post Office Building”

10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-51, The Removal Clarification Act of 2011 11/4/2011 11/9/2011 [11/4/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-52, To direct the Secretary of the Interior to allow for prepayment of repayment

contracts between the United States and the Uintah Water Conservancy District

11/4/2011 11/9/2011 [11/4/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-53, The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011 11/3/2011 11/9/2011 [11/3/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-54, The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Travel Cards Act of


11/10/2011 11/12/2011 [11/10/2011] No
P.L. 112-55, The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 11/17/2011 11/18/2011 No No
P.L. 112-56, To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to repeal the imposition of 3

percent withholding on certain payments made to vendors by government entities

11/19/2011 11/21/2011 No No
P.L. 112-57, The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 11/14/2011 11/21/2011 [11/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-58, To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to toll, during active-duty

service abroad in the Armed Forces, the periods of time to file a petition and appear for an interview to remove the conditional basis for permanent resident status,

and for other purposes

11/16/2011 11/23/2011 [11/16/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-59, To grant the congressional gold medal to the Montford Point Marines 11/15/2011 11/23/2011 [11/15/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-60, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at

462 Washington Street, Woburn Massachusetts, as the “Officer John Maguire Post Office”

11/17/2011 11/23/2011 [11/17/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-61, The America’s Cup Act of 2011 11/18/2011 11/29/2011 [11/21/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-62, The Appeal Time Clarification Act of 2011 11/18/2011 11/29/2011 [11/18/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-63, The Federal Courts Jurisdiction and Venue Clarification Act of 2011 12/2/2011 12/7/2011 [12/2/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-64, The National Guard and Reservist Debt Relief Extension Act of 2011 12/7/2011 12/13/2011 [12/7/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-65, A bill to revise the Federal charter for the Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc.

to reflect a change in eligibility requirements for membership

12/8/2011 12/13/2011 [12/8/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-66, A bill to amend title 36, United States Code, to authorize the American Legion

under its Federal charter to provide guidance and leadership to the individual departments and posts of the American Legion, and for other purposes

12/8/2011 12/13/2011 [12/8/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-67, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2012, and for other


12/16/2011 12/16/2011 No No
P.L. 112-68, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2012, and for other


12/17/2011 12/17/2011 No No
P.L. 112-69, The Fort Pulaski National Monument Lease Authorization Act 12/9/2011 12/19/2011 [12/9/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-70, The Box Elder Utah Land Conveyance Act 12/9/2011 12/19/2011 [12/9/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-71, A joint resolution to grant the consent of Congress to an amendment to the

compact between the States of Missouri and Illinois providing that bonds issued by the Bi-State Development Agency may mature in not to exceed 40 years

12/13/2011 12/19/2011 [12/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-72, The Hoover Power Allocation Act of 2011 12/13/2011 12/20/2011 [12/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-73, The Civilian Service Recognition Act of 2011 12/13/2011 12/20/2011 [12/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-74, The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 12/21/2011 12/23/2011 [12/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-75, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and

Reauthorization Act of 2011

12/19/2011 12/23/2011 [12/19/2011] No
P.L. 112-76, The Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act 12/19/2011 12/23/2011 [12/19/2011] No
P.L. 112-77, The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2012 12/21/2011 12/23/2011 [12/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-78, The Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 12/23/2011 12/23/2011 No No
P.L. 112-79, The Sugar Loaf Fire Protection District Land Exchange Act of 2011 12/20/2011 12/23/2011 [12/20/2011] No
P.L. 112-80, A bill to amend title 39, United States Code, to extend the authority of the

United States Postal Service to issue a semipostal to raise funds for breast cancer research

12/16/2011 12/23/2011 [12/16/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-81, The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 12/21/2011 12/31/2011 [12/21/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-82, The Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2011 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-83, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 20

Main Street in Little Ferry, New Jersey, as the “Sergeant Matthew J. Fenton Post Office”

12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-84, To protect the safety of judges by extending the authority of the Judicial

Conference to redact sensitive information contained in their financial disclosure reports, and for other purposes

12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-85, To designate the property between the United States Federal Courthouse and the

Ed Jones Building located at 109 South Highland Avenue in Jackson, Tennessee, as the “M.D. Anderson Plaza” and to authorize the placement of a

historical/identification marker on the grounds recognizing the achievements and philanthropy of M.D. Anderson

12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-86, The Risk-Based Security Screening for Members of The Armed Forces Act 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-87, The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-88, To instruct the Inspector General of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

to study the impact of insured depository institution failures, and for other purposes

12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-89, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 45 Bay

Street, Suite 2, in Staten Island, New York, as the “Sergeant Angel Mendez Post Office”

12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-90, The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of


12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes

[Brackets indicate a link from Whitehouse.gov to Thomas legislative database]

There’s No Machine-Readable Government Org Chart

At a recent Cato event on transparency, I emphasized that there is no federal government “organization chart” published in a way computers can use.

Here’s what I mean:

Appendix C of the Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-11 is the White House’s definitive public listing of agencies and bureaus, along with their OMB and Treasury codes—unique identifiers for the agencies and bureaus of the federal government.

First problem: It’s a PDF document. To be computer-usable this should be represented in digital form as a lookup table.

But beyond that, it doesn’t follow a coherent organization. There’s an agency code (“200”) called “Other Defense Civil Programs,” for example. There’s obviously no agency called “Other Defense Civil Programs.” That’s a catch-all description, not an agency.

With most agencies, the bureau codes refer to bureaus, such as the Bureau of Land Management (bureau code: “04”) in the Department of the Interior (agency code: “010”), but with respect to the Department of Defense (agency code: “007”), the bureau codes become functional descriptions such as “Military Personnel” (“05”). There is no bureau in the Department of Defense called “Military Personnel.”

Even the most basic organizational information is a hash, and it’s published in PDF, unusable for computer-assisted oversight of the government!

The House appears committed to improving its publication practices. If the administration wants to advance the ball on transparency for its part, it will begin to publish coherent information—starting with basic information about the organization of the executive branch—in machine-readable form, using standardized identifiers. An edict from OMB to harmonize on identifiers down to the program level could be implemented in months, if not weeks.

My recent paper “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” talks about what to do. Our data model for budgeting, appropriating, and spending articulates how government agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects—and the relationships among them—should be represented.

Why Data Transparency?

At a recent Capitol Hill briefing on government transparency, I made an effort to describe the importance of getting data from the government reflecting its deliberations, management, and results.

I analogized to the World Wide Web. The structure that allows you to find and then view a blog post as a blog post is called hypertext markup language, or html. HTML is what made the Internet into the huge, rollicking information machine you see today. Think of the darkness we lived in before we had it.

Government information is not yet published in useable formats—as data—for the public to use as it sees fit. We need government information published as data, so we can connect it in new ways, the way the World Wide Web allowed connections among documents, images, and sounds.

And when you connect data together, you get power in a way that doesn’t happen with the web, with documents. You get this really huge power out of it.

Tim Berners-Lee was not thinking of wresting power from government when he said that, but the inventor of the World Web does a better job than I could of arguing for getting data and making it available for any use. We’ll look back on today with bemusement and surprise at the paucity of information we had about our government’s activities and expenditures.

The DATA Act and Cato’s Transparency Work

In his final “Chairman’s Corner” blog post as head of the White House’s Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, Earl Devaney highlights the need for orderly publication of data about government spending.

There is bi-partisan legislation now in the Congress—it’s called the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act—that could accomplish this mission. But the reform bill faces an uphill battle, primarily because some in the bureaucracy prefer the status quo—a hodgepodge of data collection and display sites that, frankly, makes no sense at all unless you believe your government should confuse you.

The DATA Act would establish an independent board within the executive branch to track federal spending, and it would require federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to comply with reporting requirements set up by the board.

The board would “designate common data elements, such as codes, identifiers, and fields, for information required to be reported by recipients or agencies” (section 102 of the reported version, adding a new §3611 to title 31 of the U.S. code). The bill’s author, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), spoke at our September Capitol Hill briefing, rolling out our legislative data model.

On Wednesday, another Cato Capitol Hill briefing highlighted the results of our work the last few months to model federal budgeting, appropriating, and spending. Should the DATA Act become law, the model we’ve been working on can illuminate the work of the proposed board. Use of our model will help ensure that the structure of government spending data supports public oversight use cases.

I don’t know that there needs to be a board—certainly not a permanent one. The bill authorizes more money than I think is required for the board, and the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for implementing the requirements of the DATA Act seems wildly high. But the dynamics set in motion by making government spending more transparent may well reduce government spending by well more than even these high estimated costs.

Transparency and Its Discontents

Remember when you had to wait until the end of the month to see your bank statement?

Last week, on the cusp of failing to pass any annual appropriations bills ahead of the October 1 start of the new fiscal year, congressional leaders came up with a short-term government funding bill (or “continuing resolution”) that would fund the government until November 18th. For whatever reason, that deal (H.R. 2608) wasn’t ready to go before the end of the week, so Congress passed an even shorter-term continuing resolution (H.R. 2017) that funds the government until tomorrow, October 4th.

Every weekend, I hunch over my computer and update key records in the database of WashingtonWatch.com, a government transparency website I run as a non-partisan, non-ideological resource (disclosure: it’s my own, not a Cato project). Then I put a summary of what’s going on into an email like this one (subscribe!) that goes out to 7,000 or so of my closest friends.

Last weekend, the Library of Congress’ THOMAS website, which is one of my resources, was down a good chunk of the time for maintenance. Even after it came up again, some materials such as bill text and committee reports weren’t available. (They had come up by the wee hours this morning.) Maintenance is necessary sometimes, though when the service provider I use for the WashingtonWatch.com email does maintenance, it’s usually for an hour or so in the middle of a weekend night.

But when I went to update the database to reflect last week’s passage of H.R. 2017, I could find no record of its public law number. When a bill becomes a law, it gets a public law number starting with the number of the Congress that passed and then a sequential number, like Public Law No. 112-29. The Government Printing Office’s FDsys system lets you browse public laws. At this writing, it isn’t updated to reflect the passage of new laws last week. When THOMAS came back up, its public laws page also had no data to reflect the passage of that continuing resolution last week (and still doesn’t, also at this writing).

There is barely any news reporting on humdrum details about governing like the passage of a law expending $40 billion in taxpayer funds. (That’s about what H.R. 2017 spends to operate the government four more days, roughly $400 per U.S. family.) Where can you confirm with an official source that this happened?

The winning data resource this week, if by default, is Whitehouse.gov, which has a page dedicated to laws the president has signed. That page says that President Obama signed four new laws on Friday (Sept. 30). When might FDsys or THOMAS reflect this information? It’ll happen soon, and that data will start to propagate out to society.

But I think that’s not soon enough. A couple of days’ delay is a big deal.

If I were to take $400 in cash out of my bank account at an ATM, I could review that transaction from that instant forward on my bank’s website. If I had a concern or even a passing interest, I could just go look. That is an utterly unremarkable service in this day and age.

But it’s remarkable that such a service doesn’t exist in systems that are as important as our bank accounts. When Congress and the president pass a bill to spend $40 billion dollars, the fact of its passage is pretty much undocumented by any official sources until enough Mon-Fri, 9-to-5 work hours have passed.

In my recently published paper, Publication Practices for Transparent Government, I go through the things the government should do to make itself more transparent (thus improving public oversight and producing lots of felicitous outcomes). A practice I cite is “real-time or near-real-time publication.” Why? Because then any of the 300 million Americans who have an interest, real or passing, can see what is happening with their money as it happens, just like they can with their bank holdings. People like me (and many more) can propagate complete and timely information, making it that much more accessible.

When you’re talking about a potential audience of 200 million people and $40 billion in expense (one of the tiniest spending bills—others are much larger), it is not too much to ask to have the data published in real time.

I don’t expect a lot of people to join me at the barricades with pitchforks and torches on this one. Government transparency is an area ruled by implicit demand. People don’t know what they are missing, so they don’t know to suffer a sense of deprivation. I do that for them—all of them. (Heroic, idn’t it?)

Before too long, though, the government’s opacity will be recognized as a contributor to the public’s general—and strong—distaste for all that goes on in Washington, D.C. The idea of spending $400 per U.S. family without documenting every detail of it on the Internet will seem as absurd as waiting until the end of the month to see what happened in your bank account.