It’s Federal Budget Day. (Groan)

How to make sense of the President’s spending proposal.

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Photo Credit: Ryan McFarland

Today is the day the White House sends the President’s budget to Congress. The proposal — dead on arrival — is an unintelligible mishmash of happy talk, legislative language, and columns of data.

Buried in the pablum is something useful: explanations of what the government does. Imagine, if you can, a plain language description of what each agency does or plans to do, replete with just enough detail to give a good idea of what’s happening. That, in short, sums up agency-produced documents known as “Congressional Budget Justifications” (or CJs, pehaps named after former White House communications director C. J. Cregg.)

In its CJ, an agency provides Congress a rationale for why the legislative branch should make money available for an agency to spend. It says what they’ve done and what they’re planning to do.

The White House’s consigliere, an agency known as the Office of Management and Budget (or OMB, pronounced Oh Em Bee), makes sure the budget proposal and its explanation reflect White House priorities.

OMB sets the rules for how agencies write the budget in a really tedious document known as OMB Circular A-11. Among many other things, it directs agencies to release the full congressional justification materials available to the public and to post them on the internet within two weeks of sending the stuff to Congress. (I’m paraphrasing section 22.6(c)).

There are a couple of problems with this approach to making budget information available to the public.

  1. Unless you stay as home as much as I do, there’s probably no way to know the CJs exist.
  2. The CJs are scattered across the internet. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for. And even when you do, mighty Google still can lead you on a wild goose chase.
  3. Agencies publish the CJs inconsistently. Some departments publish all agencies justifications together as one giant PDF file — which can be so large it crashes your browser. And it’s not possible to do a track changes on PDFs to show how a CJ has changed from year to hear.
  4. Over time, the CJs can be lost as agencies update their pages.
  5. The White House has a central page for information about the federal budget — this one — filled with everything you’d want to know about the proposal except the Congressional Budget Justifications.

An association of people even nerdier than myself, the American Association for Budget and Program Analysts, usually compiles links to all the CJs. This should be a job for OMB, especially since it already is publishing everything else. Not everyone will find the AABPA website, it may not be complete or timely, and you have to know what you’re doing.

One purpose of open government is to make government accessible and understandable to everyone. OMB should publish explanatory information on the federal budget where the public, journalists, advocates, and policy experts would expect to find it. (The open government community has been asking them to do this for several years.)

Congress could get into the act, too.

The Budget or Appropriations Committee could gather up the documents — they are Congressional Budget Justifications, after all — and publish them on their websites, or encourage a legislative support agency like the Congressional Budget Office to do so. It would be a little weird, as why would Congress publish the White House’s public relations documents, but it would address the disclosure problem.

The Appropriators could also direct (i.e. require) OMB to update its regulation to publish the CJs on OMB’s website. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to get OMB on the job, but what’s a little nudge between coequal branches of government?

— Written by Daniel Schuman