What is the proper role of the Legislative branch in our system of government? How exactly has Congress been undermined and how might it restore its strength? Demand Progress Education Fund and Public Citizen are proud to announce our new report, “Article One: Rebuilding Our Congress,” which expands upon these questions and outlines what has happened, and why.
Our purpose is to tell the story—using numbers and data—about the dysfunction of our Legislative branch and the dangers that dysfunction poses to our democracy. We focus on four major areas that relate to the diminishment of Congressional power: (1) Congressional Capacity and Modernization, (2) Executive Branch Oversight, (3) Foreign Policy and National Security, and (4) The Power of the Purse.
Congress holds the power of the purse. That is, they decide where to spend federal money. The Constitution expressly provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The process is convoluted, opaque, and subject to exceptions and personalities. The purpose of this article is to provide the big picture, show the immense importance of these decisions, and the impact on the Legislative Branch.
Congress controls a massive amount of money. For Fiscal Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020), the budget is about $4.7 Trillion. $2.8 Trillion is mandatory spending (legally required, like Social Security payments). $1.4 Trillion is discretionary spending (Congress can spend the money on anything). About $500 Billion is interest on the national debt. And, of course, there’s emergency spending, like the recently enacted Coronavirus legislation totaling trillions of dollars (with more to come).
The Article I Renaissance continued at the House Budget Committee’s hearing on Protecting Congress’ Power of the Purse. Ranking Member Womack noted budgeting is fundamental to government and that the process doesn’t work. (He noted the recommendations of the recent Joint Committee on Budget Reform failed to pass). Members and witnesses engaged in a multi-hour discussion that featured serious discussion and concrete proposals for reform.
The Legislative branch plays a central role in our democracy, but for decades Congress has systematically underfunded congressional operations as compared to the rest of government.
The chart below shows discretionary non-defense discretionary spending from 1995-2020 (in constant dollars). During that quarter-century, non-defense discretionary spending increased by 58%, but spending for the legislative branch increased only by 27%.
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.
Congressional Budget Justifications (CBJs) are plain-language explanations of how an agency proposes to spend money it requests that Congress appropriate, but how easy is it for congressional staff and citizens to find these documents? Demand Progress surveyed 456 federal agencies and entities for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 and found:
7.5 percent of the 173 agencies with congressional liaisons, i.e., 13 agencies, published their CBJs online for only FY 2018 or FY 2019, but not both. (Agencies with congressional liaison offices routinely interact with Congress). If you exclude subordinate agencies whose reports traditionally are included in a superior agency’s reports, that figure becomes 3.3 percent, or 5 agencies, out of 152 agencies published a CBJ for FY 2018 or 2019. The failure of one agency to publish their report impacts a number of sub-agencies. Among the agencies/entities inconsistent in their reporting is the Executive Office of the President, which houses the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, and the Office of the Vice President.
6.1 percent of the 456 agencies we surveyed published their CBJs online for only FY 2018 or FY 2019, but not both. If you exclude subordinate agencies whose reports traditionally are included in a superior agency’s reports, that figure changes to 3.1 percent, or 10 agencies, out of 318 agencies published a CBJ for FY 2018 or 2019. Among the agencies/entities that inconsistently published their CBJs online are (yet again) the Executive Office of the President and the Access Board.
21 percent of the 456 agencies we surveyed did not publish a CBJ. This is on top of the 6.1 percent that published only one CBJ for 2018 and 2019. We do not know whether these agencies were required to publish a CBJ, or whether their justification might be aggregated under another agency that did not publish its report. Unfortunately, there is no publicly-available comprehensive list of agencies that must publish these justifications.
All 24 CFO Act agencies — i.e., those agencies with a Chief Financial Officer created under the CFO Act — published their CBJs online.
The recently-signed omnibus spending law contains transparency provisions intended to make our federal government just a little more open and accountable. They include: creating a hub for the reports that explain each agency’s federal spending request; a first step towards opening up federal court orders for everyone to read without charge; creating a central repository for reports by the federal Inspectors General; and making reports by the Congressional Research Service available to everyone.
While all these measures are important, the hardest fought is public access to CRS reports. CRS provides non-partisan unbiased explanations of policy matters before Congress, and they make it easier for all of us to have conversations based on the facts.
How to make sense of the President’s spending proposal.
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.
Unless you stay as home as much as I do, there’s probably no way to know the CJs exist.
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.
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.
Over time, the CJs can be lost as agencies update their pages.
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?