Despite OMB directive, budget justifications are hard (and sometimes impossible) to find online
President Trump’s 2020 budget request is coming soon, and with it the yearly debate over what gets funding and what doesn’t.
Congressional Budget Justifications — plain-language documents in which federal agencies explain how they plan to spend any appropriated money — are supposed to be public documents posted to the open internet. But a recent review of 456 executive branch agencies and entities found that CBJs are difficult to find at best, and at worst, they appear to be completely unavailable.
The survey, conducted by transparency advocacy group Demand Progress, found that 6.1 percent of all 456 agencies have either a fiscal 2018 or 2019 CBJ published online, but not both, as is the case for most other agencies.
Among this group with irregular posting habits is the Executive Office of the President — Demand Progress found a 2018 CBJ for EOP, but failed to find one from 2019. This is ironic because an entity within EOP, the Office of Management and Budget, is responsible for the directive that CBJs be published online. OMB Circular A-11 (section 22.6) sets this out.
“Make your full congressional budget justification materials, including your performance plan submission, available to the public and post the materials on the Internet within two weeks after transmittal of those materials to the Congress,” the directive reads.
Of course, 6.1 percent of agencies failing to consistently post CBJs isn’t a huge statistic. And this went down to just 3.1 percent, or 10 of 318 agencies, when Demand Progress excluded subordinate agencies whose reports are traditionally included in a superior agency’s report. CBJs for all 24 of the CFO Act agencies were available.
So is this a big deal?
For Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, it’s the overall lack of transparency around these useful documents that is the issue. Which agencies or entities are required to publish a CBJ? Which have their CBJs included as part of the CBJ of a parent agency? Where can these documents be found? What about last year’s version? The answers to these questions often aren’t immediately clear.
Circular A-11, while it does say CBJs should be posted online, doesn’t specify where. This creates an understandably fractured environment. However, Congress has now twice, in 2018 and 2019, “encouraged” OMB to maintain “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 shouldn’t even have to go through this process,” Schuman said, of the lengthy Googling exercise through which Demand Progress acquired their list of available CBJs. Because agencies must submit their CBJs to OMB before sending them to Congress, OMB could easily post all to a single location for the use of the general public, watchdogs and members of Congress alike, he argued.
In an era when the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 is driving the availability of more and more useful information about federal spending, Congressional Budget Justifications, which are unique because they’re “useful to normal people,” Schuman said, have thus far been left out of the narrative.
Demand Progress recommends that Congress mandate that OMB make agency CBJs available in a central location. The report also suggests that each agency maintain a budget page on their websites, with all budget information for any sub-agencies, and holds up the Department of the Treasury as one good example of this.
OMB did not respond to a request for comment by publication.