Sens. Peters and Portman Intro Transparency Bill for Agency Spending Plans

On Friday, Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced legislation to make it much easier to find how federal agencies propose to spend federal funds. The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act of 2019 (S. 2560) requires all agencies to publish a plain language explanation of their funding proposal — known as a Congressional Justification (CJ) —  online within two weeks of submitting them to Congress. Users must be able to download reports individually and in bulk, and agencies are encouraged to publish the CJs as structured data. 

Currently, getting your hands on these federal spending roadmaps can be a challenge. This adds yet another hurdle to tracking federal spending, an already tricky topic. Trust us, we’ve tried. Here’s the problem:

Agencies that submit CJs are required by OMB to publish the document online. Unfortunately, while there is a new database linking to some agencies’ CBJs, there is no comprehensive central database of all federal agencies’ CJs. On top of that there is no publicly-available comprehensive list of agencies that submit CJs, so it’s impossible to tell which agencies are and are not complying with the requirement.

We’ve been asking lawmakers to address these issues by publishing CJs to a central location in a searchable, sortable, and machine readable format. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) has been leading efforts in the House of Representatives to address the issue, including provisions in several appropriations bills to push OMB to address the issue. The recent improvements, while insufficient to solve the problem, are the result of Rep. Quigley’s hard work.

Sens. Peters and Portman have stepped up to address this issue from an authorizing perspective, buttressing Rep. Quigley’s efforts, and imposing a legislative solution when OMB’s approach in response to legislative requests have fallen short.

If enacted, the new requirements would go into effect at the beginning of the second new fiscal year after the bill is enacted. There is also a provision asking that, to the extent possible, agencies publish back issues of the CJs. By putting in place a federal requirement for online publication, it also makes sure the reports do not disappear, so it becomes possible to compare current against plans from prior years.