On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee favorably reported the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act for FY 2019, which contains a few transparency-related measures and a few omissions. (Bill as reported; Committee Report as reported). I’ll address a few of the items:
- Central website for Congressional Budget Justifications
- No direct funding for Oversight.Gov
- DATA Act/ USASpending.gov Implementation
- Undermining Civil Liberties Oversight
- New Technology Investments
- Pushing SEC and Open Corporate Data
- Preventing Easy Tax Filing
Congressional Budget Justifications
For the second year in a row, the Committee report included language asking OMB to make Congressional Budget Justifications available on a central website. Congressional Budget Justifications are submitted by agencies to Congress and explain, in plain language, what the agency has done and what it plans to do should its funding request be met. (Additional info). Thus far, OMB has not begun publishing the reports online.
Here is the report language:
Online Budget Repository. — The Committee encourages OMB to develop a central online repository where all Federal agency budgets and their respective justifications are publicly available in a consistent searchable, sortable, and machine readable format.
We requested that Congress create a mechanism to directly fund Oversight.gov, a website managed by the Council of Inspectors General that makes Inspectors General reports from 6 dozens agencies available on a central website. Currently, the website is funded through a pass-the-hat mechanism, and we were hoping for a direct appropriation. We are still hopeful that the Senate will act to address this.
DATA Act/ USASpending.gov
In its report language, the Committee pushed the Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service to coordinate with OMB to publish all unclassified vendor contracts and grant awards for all federal agencies on USAspending.gov.
Here is the report language:
DATA Act. — Within this appropriation, funding is included for USAspending.gov. The Committee expects the Fiscal Service to meet its transparency goals within USAspending.gov related to the DATA Act and will monitor progress in achieving government spending transparency. The Committee directs the Fiscal Service to meet its transparency goals within USAspending.gov and coordinate with OMB to publish all unclassified vendor contracts and grant awards for all federal agencies on USAspending.gov. The Committee directs the Fiscal Service to display this information online and report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and the Senate within 90 days of the enactment of this Act on its progress in achieving government spending transparency.
The Committee is committed to transparency and accountability in federal spending. As such the Committee directs the Fiscal Service to make basic information about the use of financial agents publicly available in a central location, including compensation paid to each financial agent and a description of the services provided.
In addition, it pushed OMB to make sure the information published on USASpending.gov is accurate. Here’s the report language:
USASpending.gov. — The Committee encourages OMB to regularly assess the consistency and more importantly the accuracy of the information reported on USASpending.gov by federal agencies.
Undermining Civil Liberties Oversight
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) is an independent agency, recommended to be created by the 9/11 commission, with the mission of ensuring “that the federal government’s efforts to prevent terrorism are balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties.” It has conducted incredibly important reviews of the government surveillance of Americans.
The bill makes a significant cut in its funding, from $8m to $5m.
Investing in Technology
The appropriations bill makes several major investments in technology.
- It increases funding for GSA’s technology modernization fund from $100 million to $150 million.
- It increases funded for Technology Oversight and Reform from $19 million to $25 million.
Searchable SEC Data
The bill included language that (I believe again) urges the SEC to use open standards for data filed by companies.
Searchable Data. — The Committee encourages the SEC to continue its efforts to implement consistent and searchable open data standards for information filed and submitted by publicly-traded companies and financial firms. The Committee continues to recommend that financial regulatory agencies across the U.S. Government take similar steps to update reporting standards commensurate with currently available technology.
Preventing Easy Tax Filing
The committee has prohibited the IRS from making our tax returns easy to file, helping to ensure TurboTax’s business.
Pre-Filled or Simple Tax Returns.—The Committee believes that converting a voluntary compliance system to a bill presentment model would represent a significant change in the relationship between taxpayers and their government. The simple return model would also strain IRS resources and the data retrieval systems required would create new burdens on employers, particularly small businesses. In addition, a fundamental conflict of interest seems to be inherent in the nation’s tax collector and compliance enforcer taking on the simultaneous role of tax preparer and financial advisor. The Committee expects that the IRS will not begin work on a simple tax return pilot program or associated systems without first seeking specific authorization and appropriations from Congress, and should instead focus on helping Congress and the Administration achieve real tax simplification and reform.
Please note the legislation may still be amended by the House Rules Committee, on the House floor, and likely will need to be reconciled in some way with the Senate version.
— Written by Daniel Schuman