Every year, federal agencies submit budget requests to Congress for the upcoming fiscal year. These budget justifications contain a wealth of information, including details about past program performance and proposed policy initiatives. Unfortunately, these budget justifications aren’t always easy to find. In response to this problem, Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have introduced a common-sense reform, the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act of 2019 (S. 2560). This bill would create a centralized hub for the hundreds of annual budget justifications, allowing taxpayers to better understand how the federal government is spending their tax dollars.
The act has three primary aims. First, it would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as well as the U.S. Department of the Treasury to publish all available budgetary justifications on USASpending.gov. Second, it would require a complete listing of agencies filing a budget justification. Finally, it builds on current OMB guidance promoting uniformity across agencies regarding the preparation and posting of budget justifications.
Consolidating budget justifications is a continuation of transparency legislation passed in 2006. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act established USASpending.gov, a website where the public can examine government contracts, departmental spending, and trends in federal spending over a ten-year window, making it easier for taxpayers to understand how tax dollars are spent. Yet the database lacks the agency justification documents. The Peters-Portman bill aims to make these justification documents readily accessible to provide a detailed and more complete picture of how agencies use taxpayer money. With an increase in publicly accessible data, agency accountability should increase and reflect good stewardship of taxpayer money.
According to the bill’s sponsors, agencies and departments submitted 356 budget justifications last year. This bill would also require that OMB maintain a comprehensive list of the justifications submitted by each agency, including the date they were received. With a complete listing of agency budget justifications OMB, Congress, and the public can identify agencies failing to meet budget requirements.
The final thrust of the bill is to reinforce and expand OMB’s existing guidance capacity for budget justifications. The bill seeks to develop a standard for federal agencies posting the related documents on dedicated web pages, including “/budget” in the URL: memorable and searchable. With OMB’s guidance, justifications will follow a systematized pattern, making public and congressional consumption easier. Standards for justification documents already exist in the form of OMB Circular A-110, but this bill would require OMB to clarify or reissue standards or templates for the submission of justifications.
This bill presents an excellent opportunity for increased transparency in the budget process, allowing insight into agency spending priorities for the coming fiscal year. Taxpayers deserve to know where and how their money is being spent, and this bill provides an excellent vehicle to make accessible that data. This bill would be a win for taxpayers by ensuring the availability of public finances that should have been easily accessible long ago.