Transparency at Risk in Budget Debate
Penny-pinching fever has engulfed Washington, with both parties eager to root out perceived wasteful spending. Several proposals look for savings in the government's information dissemination programs. While some of the proposals are carefully targeted reductions, others would slash funding indiscriminately with damaging consequences to some innovative transparency projects and programs.
Congress Proposes Cuts to E-Government
H.R. 1, the House-passed continuing resolution (CR) for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2011, slashes the budget for the Electronic Government Fund from $34 million to $2 million, a 94 percent reduction. The fund, which is managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), pays for transparency programs including USAspending.gov, the IT Dashboard, Data.gov, Challenge.gov, and Performance.gov, a site that is currently under construction.
The Senate rejected H.R. 1 as well as a Democratic-backed alternative that would have reduced the Electronic Government Fund by the same amount. Congress is scrambling to agree on a compromise before the previous CR expires on April 8 (see a related article in this week's Watcher).
The fund grew to its current level at the beginning of the Obama administration, in the FY 2010 budget, at the administration's request. The goals of the new initiatives seem to justify the increased funding. Indeed, a recent OMB Watch report identified e-government as a strength of the Obama administration's transparency accomplishments and noted several GSA projects in particular. President Obama's budget request for FY 2012 maintains the fund at its current $34 million level.
However, the cuts in H.R. 1 reduce funding to a level even lower than the pre-Obama years. Congress appropriated $3 million for the fund in FY 2008.
In July 2010, a Senate subcommittee approved $20 million for the fund for FY 2011, a substantial reduction that was still far less drastic than current proposals. However, the full Senate never voted on the bill. The equivalent House subcommittee did not report a bill.
The cuts in H.R. 1 are so steep that agencies are reportedly making contingency plans to shutter the sites if the CR is passed at the levels in the House bill. In a time of heightened concern about federal spending, it would be ironic for budget cuts to turn off the very websites that let Americans see how their tax dollars are spent.
As the deadline for budget action draws near, House Republicans have floated a different, shorter-term CR. H.R. 1363 proposes to provide $17 million for the Electronic Government Fund. It remains to be seen if this CR will pass the House, if the allocation for the fund will remain at the proposed level, or if the Senate will take up a similar measure. Reports near press time indicated that the White House has rejected H.R. 1363.
Other Damage in H.R. 1
In addition, H.R. 1 sharply cuts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) greenhouse gas reporting program, which will collect and make available data on the pollution that drives climate change.
H.R. 1 also includes a litany of unpopular policy riders, which attach conditions and policy changes to the bill. One of the riders prohibits funding for an online database of consumer product safety complaints developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
While there are a host of cuts moving forward related to online information services, a variety of proposals have also been advanced to reduce spending on government printing. In January, the House unanimously passed H.R. 292, the Stop the OverPrinting Act. The bill would prohibit the Government Printing Office (GPO) from printing copies of bills and resolutions for members of Congress. A Senate version is pending.
Under current practice, GPO prints at least five copies of a proposed bill or resolution for each original sponsor, adding to an estimated 2.8 million copies in 2010, according to a press release by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Hundreds of copies of each bill and resolution would continue to be printed and would be distributed through congressional document rooms. The bill would save a significant amount of the $7 million GPO is anticipated to spend on congressional printing in 2011, according to a press release by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).
In February, the Administrative Committee of the Federal Register issued a notice amending the regulations for the United States Government Manual. Under the new rules, print copies of the manual will no longer be distributed free of charge to federal agencies, and it will no longer be mandatory to print copies of the manual in lieu of the electronic version. GPO may continue to print copies of the manual based on demand, and agencies requesting a print copy will have to pay for it. In FY 2010, nearly 9,000 copies of the manual were distributed to government agencies at a cost of nearly $89,000, according to records provided by the National Archives and Records Administration.
H.R. 235, S. 239, and S. 477 all contain language that would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop a 10-year strategy to phase out unnecessary printing of government publications and take measures to reduce printing by government employees. H.R. 235 and S. 477 contain additional language to require each government publication to identify the number of copies printed and the cost of doing so.
Some legislative proposals target specific agencies or documents for printing reductions. H.R. 1246, by Rep. Allen West (R-FL), would reduce the Defense Department's printing budget by ten percent. S. 674 would end the printing of the Congressional Record except for a limited number of archival copies.
President Obama's FY 2012 budget proposes to reduce printing costs in several ways. The administration's government-wide efficiency initiative is targeting printing costs as an area for savings by eliminating some printing and making other printing more efficient. For instance, the 2010 SAVE Award-winning idea would end the print distribution of the Federal Register to federal employees, saving $4 million annually.
The administration's budget also includes several areas where agencies propose to reduce costs or improve services by shifting to electronic reporting or service delivery in lieu of paper. These include expanding electronic reporting at EPA and the Labor Department, implementing a new paperless claims processing system at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and increasing paperless transactions at the Treasury Department.
Other proposals are more rash. S. 162, by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), would eliminate the entire GPO budget, which was $94 million in FY 2010.
Editor's note: The text on the details of H.R. 1363 has been modified for clarification.