Small Wins for Transparency in 2012 Spending Package
The fiscal year 2012 spending package signed by President Obama on Dec. 23 included some good news for government transparency and right to know. Many of the worst provisions of the bill were removed from the final compromise, but open government advocates remain concerned.
The Budget Control Act, passed to end the debt ceiling hostage crisis in August, capped total funding for fiscal year (FY) 2012, but Congress continued to struggle over specific allocations for programs and the slew of conservative policy riders attached by the House, which made compromise with the Senate difficult. To avoid a government shutdown or another stopgap spending bill, Congress had to rush to finalize the funding bill (H.R. 2055) before the holidays in a cramped and opaque process.
Modest Boost for E-Gov Fund
Despite the many problems with the spending package and the process by which it was enacted, there is some good news: the law provides a small increase for the Electronic Government Fund, which pays for flagship transparency projects such as USAspending.gov, Data.gov, and the IT Dashboard. The increase represents a restoration of $4 million, to total allocation of $12.4 million, after the fund saw its budget cut from $34 million to $8 million in April 2011. In the context of the overall budget cuts, the increase for the E-Gov Fund is remarkable, and we hope it represents a new respect for the value of public information.
Moreover, the spending package preserves the E-Gov Fund as an independent budget line and retains the E-Government Act's authorization and reporting requirements. Previously, both the House and the Senate appropriations committees had proposed merging the E-Gov Fund with the Federal Citizen Services Fund, which could have resulted in e-gov dollars being diverted to other purposes.
Cuts in Support for the Government Printing Office
The funding bill cuts support for the Government Printing Office (GPO) by $9.1 million, or 6.8 percent of its total budget. GPO provides the public with access to government information in a variety of forms, including publishing documents such as the Congressional Record and the Code of Federal Regulations, maintaining the FDsys website for online access to government documents, distributing government publications to libraries through the Federal Depository Library Program, and digitizing historical government publications for free public access. Earlier versions had proposed cuts of over 20 percent of GPO's budget, so the enacted bill is a good reprieve. However, the cuts could weaken GPO's ability to make information available to the public, even though Congress seems to think increased efficiencies at GPO will allow the agency to absorb cuts without a reduction in services: the managers' statement on H.R. 2055 directs the Congressional Research Service to commission a "review of GPO operations and additional cost saving opportunities."
Other Transparency Efforts
The final bill provides $5 million for a new Integrated, Efficient and Effective Uses of Information Technology fund to be managed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The Obama administration had proposed a funding level of $60 million in its February 2011 budget request "to establish a coherent Federal strategy for centralized, efficient provision of IT services and infrastructure across the Government." $5 million will not go far in meeting this important goal.
Product Safety Database Protected
A provision previously approved by the House appropriations committee that would have prohibited the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) from spending to update its consumer product safety database was struck from the final bill. CPSC launched the database at SaferProducts.gov in March 2011, in response to several highly publicized recalls of dangerous products, but industry interests complained about the monetary impact of having their goods listed in a public data set of unsafe products. Helping Americans make safer choices about the goods they purchase is the purpose of the website, and the removal of barriers to its mission is a victory for the American public.
Money in Politics
H.R. 2055 includes a revised version of a rider that had been designed to limit disclosure of campaign contributions given by companies doing business with the federal government. The original House provision prohibited the Obama administration from requiring current or prospective contractors to disclose their political contributions. It was attached in response to rumors that the administration was about to issue an executive order to try to cut down on "pay-to-play" government contracting practices.
The final version of the rider states that firms do not have to disclose their campaign contributions during the bidding process. However, the administration could require that successful bidders disclose their campaign contributors after a contract has been awarded. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) commented, "I hope the President takes this opportunity to finally issue his long-awaited Executive Order."
Other Policy Riders
A variety of other riders that impact reporting and access to information also found their way into the final law. For instance, the law contained a rider exempting manure management systems from greenhouse gas reporting requirements, as well as a provision prohibiting the printing of the Congressional Record for members of Congress and limiting the printing of bills as a cost-saving measure.
What's Likely in FY 2013
While this budget deal resulted in deep cuts in spending for transparency and government modernization efforts, the final compromises were not as bad as we initially anticipated. In February, President Obama will present his proposal for the FY 2013 budget, and the process will begin again. OMB Watch will continue to advocate for adequate funding for programs that protect the public's right to know.
Image in teaser by flickr user Jeffrey Beall, used under a Creative Commons license.