The novelty song “Istanbul not Constantinople,” written on the 500th anniversary of the fall of the eponymous city to the Ottoman Empire and re-popularized in the ’90s by They Might Be Giants, celebrates the Eastern Roman Empire best remembered for its labyrinthian — or “byzantine” — system of government. But Byzantium’s arcane and complex political system pales in comparison to how the United States, arguably the most powerful country in the world, decides to spend money.
The proposed federal budget from the President is coordinated by an innocuous-sounding but immensely powerful cadre of bureaucrats at the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”). Their dictates mean life or death for innumerable programs and initiatives. Federal law requires the President provide a comprehensive budget of the full range of federal activities no later than the first Monday in February to Congress, which has the power of the purse. But before the budget is sent, all agencies must have their proposals approved by OMB, which compiles and reviews their requests into blue covered books that can double as doorstops, paperweights, and monuments to the trees they used to be.
Reading the President’s budget proposal harkens back to our Byzantine friends, or at least the phrase “it’s all Greek to me.” No ordinary human can make sense of it, and it’s broken into exciting sections like “analytical perspectives” and “the budget appendix.” OMB proudly publishes the contents on its website, but omits the Rosetta stone required to translate the proposal into English. If you want enlightenment, follow the lead of congressional appropriators and read the agency Congressional Justifications, which are nowhere to be found on OMB’s website.
Congressional Justifications (CJs) are everything a curious citizen or congressman needs to understand what an agency proposes to do. Written in plain English by the folks inside each agency, CJs detail what each agency has done and plans to do program-by-program. It also contains helpful breakdowns of where the money will go and what milestones must be met. They’re easily accessible to the Congressmen who are entrusted with appropriating funds for the federal government in a timely manner. But they aren’t easily accessible for the folks who pay for it with their tax dollars: you.
OMB writes the rules on how CJs must be written. And while OMB requires federal agencies to publish CJs somewhere on their individual websites, it doesn’t say where or impose enough standardization on how. But most importantly, it most certainly doesn’t gather them all up in the one place that people would actually find them: OMB’s budget website.
As things are now, we have chaos. Agencies routinely fracture a CJ into 30 individual parts. Or they publish it as a giant PDF that will certainly crash your browser. And aside from that, in their current scattered state, you have to know they exist and have good google-fu to find them. There are dozens and dozens of CJs each year — frankly, an untold amount because no one takes care to archive the old ones. The problem isn’t necessarily how the government spends our money, it’s how it’s telling us.
Of course, this is all really easy to fix. OMB reviews the CJs before they’re sent to Congress. It could have an intern spend a half-an-hour and publish them on its budget website — hopefully not just in a PDF format. OMB could require that they be published in useful formats that your computer could actually process. It’s not like they don’t know access is a problem. Everyone in the budget high priesthood knows the value of the CJs and relies on them, but they haven’t resolved the problem no matter how many times we’ve asked them to fix it.
When you ask why is OMB keeping us in the dark on how taxpayer dollars are spent, the answer is obvious. Obscurity is the best shield against taxpayer scrutiny. It’s time for the government to get its act together and provide us a plain-language accounting for where all those billions of dollars go.
Daniel Schuman is a Policy Director at Demand Progress, and Sasha Moss is a Technology Policy Manager at the R Street Institute.