Budget and Deficit Transparency

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Earlier this week, the Senate passed an amendment to the unemployment extenders bill that would require the Secretary of the Senate to post information related to the debt effect of each bill that passes the Senate. The vote was 100-0. Unaminous votes are pretty rare in the Senate. This one highlights both the significance that the debt is playing in lawmaker’s minds and the general support for transparency as an idea in Congress.

The bill itself has some issues, which I’ll address here.

First, what does the amendment do? This is the legislative language (which, unlike most legislative language, is pretty straightforward):

(a) In General.–The Secretary of the Senate shall post prominently on the front page of the public website of the Senate (http://www.senate.gov/) the following information:

(1) The total amount of discretionary and direct spending passed by the Senate that has not been paid for, including emergency designated spending or spending otherwise exempted from PAYGO requirements.

(2) The total amount of net spending authorized in legislation passed by the Senate, as scored by CBO.

(3) The number of new government programs created in legislation passed by the Senate.

(4) The totals for paragraphs (1) through (3) as passed by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the President.

(b) Display.–The information tallies required by subsection (a) shall be itemized by bill and date, updated weekly, and archived by calendar year.

(c) Effective Date.–The PAYGO tally required by subsection (a)(1) shall begin with the date of enactment of the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010 and the authorization tally required by subsection (a)(2) shall apply to all legislation passed beginning January 1, 2010.

Okay, now the criticism:

1) The items that are to be disclosed in (a)(2) and (a)(3) are either not specific or only tell one side of the coin. For example, the net spending in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), is $871 billion from 2010-2019. However, the net cost is listed at $614 billion from 2010-2019. Furthermore, the CBO projects that the bill would result in a net reduction in deficits of $132 billion from 2010-2019. So, the CBO projects that the bill will reduce the deficit, but this amendment would only disclose the “total amount of net spending.” That seems a bit like cherry-picking if you ask me. Same goes for disclosing new government programs created in a bill. First, the amendment does not define a government program. Definition is really important in disclosure legislation. Second, what if a bill reduces the number of government programs? Why would we not want to disclose that?

2) Is there a database for this? It doesn’t look like it. And why is it updated weekly instead of in real-time? Also, why not post the deficit impact of legislation before it is passed by the Senate or both chambers? Posting information on legislation prior to enactment or passage would probably help achieve the transparency bill’s goal of making it more difficult for lawmaker’s to approve deficit spending.

3) The whole thing seems like a piecemeal effort. What the government really needs is something like the Budget.gov web site that my colleague Daniel Schuman discussed in this post. Additionally, Congress should give citizens access to all the same legislative resources that Congress is provided through the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Legislative Information Service (LIS).

I’m all in favor of more transparency around the budget, the deficit and the debt. Rather than an ad hoc requirement placed on the Secretary of the Senate, there may be a more broad and sustained approach to budgetary and deficit transparency that could be more informative to the public’s needs.

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