Budget and Spending Transparency

Access to government spending information is a fundamental pillar of an accountable government. It provides a basis for citizen participation, promotes government integrity, and encourages greater efficiency.

Current reporting systems do not cover all aspects of government budgeting and spending. In short, people in the government cannot track where every penny goes from the time when money is appropriated to when it is spent. And to the extent this information is tracked and reported to the public, those reports are often difficult to obtain, lack sufficient depth and granularity, and are made available in difficult to use formats.

The following are Sunlight Foundation policy proposals to improve transparency for federal government budget and spending information.

One-Stop Budget Information

While a wealth of information is slowly being published online regarding the budget decision-making process, that information is spread out over multiple sites in ways that are difficult to follow. We propose a unified portal called Budget.gov that links to all of these resources.

A 360 Degree View of Federal Grants and Contracts

The website USASpending.gov is intended as a one-stop shop for government contract and grants information. While the site is an improvement over what came before, the quality of the information it contains is poor. Through our ClearSpending project, we’ve been able to quantify the extent that grants are misreported: in 2010, there was $1.3 trillion in broken spending reporting. We’ve been working with Congress and the White House to improve the data quality. We’ve also been trying to look at the accuracy of contracts reported in USASpending.gov.

In this video, Sunlight Foundation executive director Ellen Miller describe the grants reporting problem in this September 2010 speech at the Gov 2.0 summit. For more detail, read her March 2011 testimony before a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, or her testimony before the full committee in June 2011 on Achieving Accountability and Transparency in Federal Spending. As you can see, data quality is still a huge issue.

Partly in response to our concerns, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform introduced the DATA Act, an ambitious proposal that, if enacted, would transform how we track federal spending and identify waste, fraud, and abuse. The legislation would build upon the successes of USASpending.gov and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to establish an independent body to track all federal spending on a single website and require the use of consistent government-wide data standards. The bill as introduced is not perfect, but we are working hard to help it live up to its potential. In a similar vein, the White House has established an Accountability and Transparency Board to oversee federal reporting of all spending information.

We and other organizations are continuing to chart the way forward by fleshing out principles for spending transparency and revising our analysis of USASpending.gov data. As of September 2011, there is still more than $1.3 trillion in broken spending reports data.


While making up a relatively small part of the federal budget, congressional earmarks have a tremendous potential for waste, fraud, abuse. These items, which benefit one or a handful of people, can result in bridges built to nowhere, programs that benefit no one, and perhaps a hefty campaign donation as a thank you.

Earmarks have traditionally been very hard to track. New legislation, the Earmark Transparency Act, would help bring this hidden spending to light. We helped with the bill’s formulation, called for cosponsors, and applauded each baby step as the legislation has moved forward. Ultimately, whether this bill or one of the many others that we’re tracking, earmarks will never be the same. For the 112th Congress, the House of Representatives has banned the use of earmarks, and earlier congresses put into place reporting mechanisms. Of course, Congress is still finding ways around that ban, which is why we need more transparency.

Funding for Government Transparency Programs

Over the past decade, a number of federal government transparency initiatives have received financial support from the Electronic Government Fund, a small pool of money overseen by the Federal CIO. Programs paid for through the E-Gov Fund include USASpending.gov, which provides a public interface for federal grants and contracts; Data.gov, a website where the government publishes datasets about the work it does; ITDashboard.gov, which tracks the money the government spends on information technology; assistance to agencies to help transition to cloud computing; the developments of mobile apps; and many others.

While the E-Gov Fund was appropriated $34m in FY 2009 and 2010, the road became much bumpier in FY 2011, when its funding level was cut in the second half of the year. The Sunlight Foundation launched a #savethedata campaign that garnered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition and resulted in some of the proposed cuts being restored, to around $8m. Even so, no project was unaffected by these cuts.

The debate over FY 2012 funding may be just as bruising. After a long battle, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee agreed to increase E-Gov funding to between $13-16m (while combining it with another fund), about half of its FY 2010 level. In a surprise move, the Senate Appropriations Committee went the other direction, slashing the newly combined funds to $11m less than the House’s levels. It remains to be seen what will happen.

Tax Expenditures

Tax expenditures make up the equivalent of 1/4 of the federal budget — around $1 trillion — and are primarily composed of what are commonly referred to as tax breaks. In other words, they are government revenue losses resulting from provisions in the tax code that allow a taxpayer or business to reduce his or her tax burden by taking certain deductions, exemptions or credits. Compared to traditional government spending through contracts and grants, tax expenditures are harder to track, subject to less congressional oversight, and caught up in ideological debates over definitions.

As the technology and research partner to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Sunlight Foundation build SubsidyScope, a website that houses estimates of tax expenditures from the Department of Treasury and the Joint Committee on Taxation for the last decade. The site sorts tax expenditure information by all economic sectors, with the data being searchable and downloadable.

Sunlight also hosted a public discussion on tax expenditures through its Advisory Committee on Transparency. Participants in the conversation included William Beach of the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Hungerford of the Congressional Research Service, Lori Metcalf of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Eric Toder of the Urban Institute, and Jesse Feinberg from Rep. Mike Quigley’s office.