Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Review


(Cross-posted from the Open House Project blog.)

The Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (reported out of committee on June 21st) provides a revealing look into the priorities that Congress sets in funding its own operations. The House and Senate pass separate appropriations bills; this page on THOMAS organizes the appropriations bills for each fiscal year in a remarkably useful manner.

While the majority side of the Senate Appropriations committee did include a brief review of their bill (as did their House counterpart), I’d like to give my impressions of the appropriations from the perspective of an advocate for public access and transparency, using the Senate report as a guide. (The Republican websites don’t feature any press releases, which isn’t surprising, given the minority’s smaller staff and budget, comparative lack of clout in controlling committee functioning, and their opportunity to add dissenting views to the report, as I discovered in reading the House report.)

Reading the actual report yields much greater detail about how our federal government views its own functions and prioritizes. Committee reports are carefully structured documents, largely in response to the specific requirements of House Rule XIII, governing the explicit disclosure of legal wording, and the production and availability of reports. Aside from raw statistical details comparing spending to the President’s budget requests (which the Leg. Branch subcommittees managed to stay below), the reports also afford an intimate view into the priorities and inner functions of the government.

The Senate report contains a similar admonishment against legislative branch waste, explaining the creation of an Inspector General for the Office of the Architect of the Capitol. (p. 3, page numbers as numbered on the report).

The report similarly touts the passage of S.1, defending their spending power while asserting the benefits of transparency:

The Committee believes trongly that Congress should make the decisions on how to allocate the people’s money. In order to improve transparency and accountability in the process or approving earmarks (as defined in S. 1) in appropriations measures, each Committee report includes, for each earmark…[the Member’s name, the location of the recipient, and the purpose for each earmark.] (p. 4)

The report lists budgets and priorities for offices throughout the Senate, including the Office of Captioning Services, as authorized by Public Law 101-163. I wonder if the likely public domain status of these captions could be leveraged to help provide a text stream to accompany internet based legislative video, to help with section 508 (accessibility) concerns for members posting videos of themselves on their websites?

Budgets for each Senatorial office are posted, ranging from about $2 million to about $4 million, depending on the size of the population of each state and the increased travel expenses associated with more distant states.

Each separate committee and administrative office has a detailed budget; within these estimates one can see that one year of utilities for the Capitol costs about $64.4 million.

The Library of Congress gets about $577 Million, and also gets castigated for apparent poor budgeting (p. 35)…

The Committee continues to be concerned with the Library’s budget development process… The Committee recognizes improvements in the Library’s strategic planning efforts, but believes a better job needs to be done of setting priorities, recognizing budgetary constraints, and linking the budget to performance-based metrics.

The LOC is an essential American institution, controlling and maintaining much of the information and knowledge that permits Congress to function. The Congressional Research Service also gets singled out:

It has come to the Committee’s attention that CRS has been holding annual management retreats at expensive off-site locations… The Committee is also concerned that the Congressional Research Service often acts as if it were an independent agency, separate from the Library of Congress. CRS is in fact part of the Library of Congress, and its policies and procedures should reflect this fact. (p. 39)

Many of the report’s admonishments suggest strange issues or struggles whose origin is unclear to the observer. For example, the restriction of public travel and occupancy of the LOC “to the sidewalks and other paved surfaces” is rescinded (p. 49). I can only imagine what resulted in that particular rules change.

The Office of Technology Assessment come up in the Senate report again as well…

The Committee recommends funding of $750,000 and four full-time equivalent employees to establish a permanent technology assessment function in the Government Accountability Office. The Committee has decided not to establish a separate entity to provide independent technology assessment for the legislative branch owing to budget constraints… (p. 42)

The report goes into further detail about their plans for a revisited OTA (which was disbanded in the Gingrich revolution. Background about the Open House Project and the OTA is available here.

The report also mentions the FDLP program under the Office of Superintendent of Documents, describing the distribution process of government documents. (p. 42)

The amount of detail in appropriations reports is staggering, and Congress does a great service to anyone looking to understand where the government’s money is spent in providing detailed appropriations reports in human readable (non-legal) language.