The Sunlight Foundation is supporting a piece of bipartisan legislation that will help make the federal government’s spending choices a bit less opaque by mandating the centralization of important budget documents. It’s one that has us at the Web Integrity Project particularly excited, because it’s all focused on our favorite thing: the federal web.
When federal agencies seek funds from Congress, they lay out how they intend to spend that money in documents called “congressional budget justifications” (CBJs). These often lengthy documents (see the State Department’s 169-page FY 2019 CBJ, for example) offer a detailed, easy-to-understand description of how each dollar will be used, and an explanation of why the purpose described is a good way to spend public money.
Under Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rules, CBJs are already supposed to be published on agency websites after they’ve been sent to Congress, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy for the public to find or use. Earlier this year, a report from the Demand Progress Education Fund found that many agencies have failed to consistently post their CBJs, with as many as 35 percent of independent agencies having an incomplete set available online. Furthermore, CBJs are scattered across dozens of websites, making it laborious to find them. And there is no centralized documentation that could indicate which CBJs are missing, and which were published as part of the CBJs of other agencies.
“Easy, centralized access to agency Congressional Budget Justifications is crucial for agency accountability,” the report authors note. “As OMB apparently has declined to voluntarily publish agency CBJs on a central website, Congress should mandate that they do so.”
The bill currently under consideration, which we strongly support, would do exactly that. The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act of 2019 (H.R. 4894), introduced into the U.S. House on Tuesday by Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois would mandate that all CBJs are posted online in a single repository, making them easier to find, and ultimately helping them serve their purpose: to inform the public about how tax dollars are spent.
The bill takes some steps to help improve the usability of the documents as well, requiring that CBJs be posted within two weeks of their delivery to Congress, so they’re not outdated by the time the public can access them. It also encourages agencies to publish the documents in a “structured data” format to make it easier to perform complex analysis. The bill also urges agencies to make CBJs from previous years available, so that comparisons can be made across time and across agencies. Another provision we particularly like calls for agencies to make the materials available on a section of each agency’s website that would be uniform across all agencies and would be “descriptive, memorable, and pronounceable, such as the format of ‘agencyname.gov/budget’” That’s good web governance!
You can read the letter supporting this new legislation, sent by Demand Progress, and to which we are a signatory, here.