House Appropriators released draft legislation [PDF] on Wednesday that appears to increase funding levels for the Electronic Government Fund, the source of financial support for government financial and data transparency websites, in a hint of things to come at tomorrow's mark-up. The e-gov fund suffered a huge cut from $34m in FY 2010 to $8m in FY 2011, which put many of its programs on life-support and terminated others, and has been the subject of a campaign by transparency advocates (including Sunlight) to restore full funding. The legislation was released 24-hours before a House Appropriations Committee Financial Services Subcommittee mark-up, scheduled for some time on Thursday morning. UPDATE 6/16: the subcommittee approved the legislation without amendment.
In a legislative twist, funding for the Electronic Government Fund appears to have been combined with funding for the Office of Citizen Services, making it difficult to figure out how much money will actually go towards e-gov websites. My best guess is that the legislation would increase the money available for e-gov to $13m from the $8m appropriated in FY 2011, which is still far off from the $34m available in FY 2010.
Where does this guess come from? Well, the draft legislation would appropriate $50m to e-gov and OCS, and last year OCS was cut from $37m to $34m. If we assume that OCS has been returned to a $37m funding level, that leaves $13m for e-gov. (It could be that OCS funding will not be fully restored, so more money would go towards e-gov, but there’s no way to know.) Combining these two funds together may have some logic to it, as the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Information Technology maintains projects built under both of those funds.
What does this mean in practical terms? Were the House Appropriations Subcommittee’s text to be untouched during mark-up and adopted into law, the e-gov fund would marginally improve, moving from life support to critical condition. Enough money might be available to either make some improvements to its existing transparency programs, or perhaps to add a new program, but not much more than that. Progress on improving transparency websites and access to data would be slow, fitful, and uneven -- but possible.
A critical test for the funding level comes this Thursday morning, when the House Appropriations Subcommittee will mark-up the text, meaning that it will review, amend, and (likely) vote to approve the legislation. This is the best opportunity in the House for real changes to be made to the bill. Hopefully the e-gov fund will receive a financial boost during this process.
Unfortunately, the hearing will take place in a tiny room in the Capitol, so it is very difficult for members of the public to attend. It won’t be webcast, despite House rules requiring committees to “provide audio and video coverage … in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings,” so you can’t watch the action online. We’ve run into this problem before. My colleague Melanie will try to attend, but given the space constraints and significant interest in the mark-up, odds are slim that she’ll be able to get into the room.
Assuming the bill is passed out of subcommittee this week, it will go to the full Appropriations Committee next week, which will likely simply endorse the actions of the subcommittee, although there is a slim chance for amendment. After that, it will advance to the floor of the House for a final vote, and then go to the Senate. The whole process will start again, and we have hope that the Senate will fight to fully fund e-gov.
Of course, we’ll be following this each step of the way. And everything could change during mark-up.
Here’s the legislative language from the House Appropriations Subcommittee text:
INFORMATION AND ENGAGEMENT FOR CITIZENS
For necessary expenses of the Office of Citizen Services, including services authorized by 5 U.S.C. 3109, and 24 to carry out the E-Government Act of 2002 (Public Law 25 107–347), $50,000,000: Provided, That the revenues and collections deposited into the Federal Citizen Services Fund shall only be available for necessary expenses of Federal Citizen Services activities in the aggregate amount not to exceed $60,000,000: Provided further, That revenues and collections accruing to the Fund during fis-cal year 2012 in excess of such amount shall remain in the Fund and shall not be available for expenditure except as authorized in appropriations Acts.