OMB Watch (Center for Effective Government as of January 2012) was founded by Gary Bass in 1983. Within months, it had a staff of three people: David Plocher (who now works at the GAO), Shannon Ferguson, and Gary Bass. None of the staff were paid regularly. We used a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer with 8-inch floppy drives to publish a newsletter and alerts. Our main focus was shining a light on the Office of Management and Budget. More specifically we helped community groups understand the impact of the Reagan budget on human services programs; protected nonprofit advocacy rights and helped nonprofits live within advocacy rules published by OMB; monitored the administrative process of government, particularly the regulatory review process at OMB; and identified ways to make the government more transparent.
In 1993, OMB Watch marked its 10th anniversary. Some highlights from the first decade include:
Built a broad coalition to help shape IRS regulations on lobbying by charities. The final 1990 rules are still in place today and are considered a great success.
Drew attention to the role of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulation Affairs (OIRA) and how it had politicized federal rulemaking and used the Paperwork Reduction Act as a backdoor means for implementing the president’s policies and priorities. Our advocacy restored the collection of information that OIRA wanted to curtail.
Published Through the Corridors of Power, a book describing the federal rulemaking process that also identified how the public can participate.
Our investigations and reporting on the Quayle Council on Competitiveness resulted in much national attention on how the Council provided a conduit for powerful special interests to influence legislation, ultimately leading to the Council’s director resigning over conflict of interest charges; focus on the Council during the 1992 presidential election; and President Clinton, on his first day in office, disbanding the Council and announcing new approaches to stop the influence of special interests.
Organized a coalition that focused on implementation of a law that created the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) and required EPA to make TRI data available through "computer telecommunications and other means," the first law to require online searchable data. Our frustration with the law’s implementation led to our creation of the Right-to-Know Network, or RTK NET (www.rtknet.org), in 1989, which provided access to the TRI data. It was considered a major success and resulted in a partnership with EPA and another nonprofit. RTK NET still exists today as an OMB Watch project.
Ever since its founding as OMB Watch, Center for Effective Government has led a diverse group of organizations to battle a number of attacks on nonprofit advocacy, including proposals by OMB and conservatives in the 1980s to "defund the left"; a number of legislative proposals by some combination of Reps. Ernest Istook, David McIntosh, and Robert Ehrlich from 1995 through 1999; an amendment to affordable housing legislation sponsored by House leadership in 2005; and amendments to the Serve America Act of 2009 pushed by Rep. Virginia Foxx and Sen. Jim DeMint. Our joint campaigns were successful in beating back all of these attacks on advocacy and the First Amendment.
In 1995, OMB Watch formed Citizens for Sensible Safeguards, a coalition that addressed attacks on public protections and the regulatory process. We beat back numerous legislative proposals, many part of the Contract with America, to stop a strong anti-regulatory push by business groups and conservatives – even though we were outspent by more than 20 to 1.
Throughout the 1990s and beyond, OMB Watch led several coalitions – including the Coalition for Budget Integrity, a coalition to obtain the "peace dividend," and Invest in America – to shift national priorities on federal spending, advocating for more funding for needed domestic initiatives, particularly those for low-income families. At the same time, we played a leadership role in stopping multiple congressional efforts to pass a constitutional balanced budget amendment. The 1997 effort was stopped by one vote in the Senate.
In response to the reactionary and unnecessary removal of reams of government information from the Internet following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, OMB Watch staff began the long battle to restore the public's right to know.
We created a website listing documents removed from federal websites, many of which were still available through other sources on the Internet.
We continued to post summaries of Risk Management Plans on RTK NET even when EPA took them down. RMPs are crucial to planning emergency response efforts in the event of a chemical plant leak or explosion and to helping families know about dangers in their communities.
We organized the creation of OpenTheGovernment.org, a broad coalition of advocacy and journalism groups advocating for more openness and less secrecy.
The battle against secrecy continues to this day.
Also in 2001, OMB Watch established a coalition of nonprofits called Americans for a Fair Estate Tax to oppose estate tax repeal and to advocate for smart reform of the tax, consistent with our organization's belief in fairness and social justice. The coalition's work is ongoing.
In 2006, OMB Watch worked with Sens. Barack Obama and Tom Coburn and a variety of progressive and conservative organizations to move the groundbreaking Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) through Congress. FFATA required an online searchable database of federal spending.
In October 2006, OMB Watch launched FedSpending.org, a searchable database of federal contracts, grants, and loans dating back to FY 2000. In part, OMB Watch built the site to show doubters both inside and outside government that federal spending could be tracked and published in this way. FedSpending.org was so successful that the federal government licensed the software in 2007 and used it as the basis for what is now USAspending.gov. The Los Angeles Times called OMB Watch’s FedSpending.org "the beginning of the transparency revolution."
OMB Watch celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008 and prepared to actively engage in what was to become one of the most historic presidential transitions in United States history. Soon after the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008, OMB Watch presented to the transition team and Congress two sets of collaboratively developed recommendations to bring government transparency and the regulatory process into the 21st century. The recommendations on transparency, developed by progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, were considered by the White House to be the "blueprint" for their actions on government openness.
In early 2009, OMB Watch released a wide-ranging narrative on the negative regulatory legacy left behind by the Bush administration and, working with the Center for American Progress, offered suggestions to the Obama administration on how to tackle some of the more egregious parts of this legacy, known as "midnight regulations." OMB Watch also worked with the Obama administration on several key initiatives, including the development of the Open Government Directive.
On July 1, 2011, Katherine McFate took the helm of OMB Watch as its second executive director. McFate has been a strong proponent of an open, effective government for many years, and she has strong ties in the nonprofit sector and the public interest community. Prior to joining OMB Watch, McFate worked with the Ford Foundation.
In January of 2013, OMB Watch became Center for Effective Government. At the present time, Center for Effective Government has 20 staff members, though its reach extends well beyond its size due to its continued role in convening coalitions of organizations to work in the public interest. The organization's staff experts, forward-looking board of directors, and senior leadership have strongly positioned Center for Effective Government to continue the pursuit of a more open and accountable government that promotes fairness and equity.