Among the biggest unanswered questions in the nation’s capital is how many federal government programs taxpayers fund these days. This mystery has evaded Washington’s best minds for decades.
The sole obstacle to getting that answer is a handful of Senate Democrats, who, for reasons known only to them, block the needed legislation—the Taxpayers Right to Know Act—every time it comes up for a vote in the upper chamber, according to one of their immensely frustrated Republican colleagues.
“There are some folks on the other side of the aisle that are concerned that if the American people and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) see every dollar that is spent, they have literally said to me ‘It’s too much transparency,’” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told The Epoch Times on Aug. 10.
“My response is always ‘It’s not too much transparency, it’s actual transparency,’ because right now if I want to know all of the federal programs related to any item, I have to go to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and make a request,” Lankford said.
Lankford also said opponents of his proposal claim it gives OMB too much power to root out waste and duplication. “Congress cannot see where there is duplication and overlap and neither can the American people, and that’s absurd.”
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request from The Epoch Times for comment.
The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress, but the agency must respond to thousands of requests from senators and representatives, so getting a current list of federal programs can take months.
Even then, the list is a static one, showing programs at a point in time. Lankford’s proposal requires OMB to extend the inventory process it began in 2013 by creating a publicly accessible online database with continually updated data on spending and performance for all federal programs.
Besides enabling taxpayers to better see where their tax dollars are going, such a website would make it much easier for Congress to identify duplication and waste. Hundreds of billions of dollars could be saved and programs made more efficient, Lankford contends.
Lankford is doubly frustrated because, in an era of intense partisanship, his proposal has been passed by the House of Representatives twice, once under Republican control in 2014 and again in February with Democrats in charge. The House version of the bill was introduced in 2019 by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.).
Lankford entered the Senate in 2015 after winning a special election to complete retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s term. Lankford served in the House from 2011 to 2015 and was elected with 68 percent of the vote in 2016 to a full Senate term.
The way was cleared for Lankford’s proposal in 2006 with creation of USASpending.gov, the website that gives taxpayers instant access to most federal spending. Coburn and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) co-sponsored the bill establishing the spending site.
The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act was upgraded in 2010 to require OMB to begin the needed program inventory, but progress has been slow, in part due to bureaucratic claims about the difficulties of defining what constitutes a “program.” Even so, the first tentative inventory was released by OMB in 2013, but there were multiple problems.
“The 2013 inventory publication was based on agency-by-agency compilations, not a comprehensive overview on a consistent basis across different agencies. As a result, it did not effectively allow identification of duplication and inefficiency,” Truth in Accounting Research Director Bill Bergman wrote in an Aug. 5 report by the Chicago-based nonprofit.
But, Bergman noted, progress was made on a problem that had bedeviled officials for decades. He pointed to 1982 congressional testimony by a senior GAO official telling Congress that the agency had compiled a static inventory of more than 6,000 federal programs. Since then, the inventory has become more ambitious.
To fix the 2013 problems, GAO made multiple recommendations in subsequent years, including that OMB revise its guidance to agencies to ensure they collaborate in identifying programs with common goals and outcomes, consult with congressional committees about their definitions of programs, and more precisely describe performance goals for their programs.
But implementation has hit a pause. In May 2019, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro formally told Congress what he had previously made clear in other forums that “as of March 2019, the executive branch had not resumed implementation of the inventory requirements.” (pdf)
Michelle Sager, director of GAO’s Strategic Issues Team, told The Epoch Times that Dodaro strongly favors OMB completing the implementation to enable a site that includes “a cohesive program inventory that would allow you to see the spending, as well as the performance, by programs beyond just the individual program activities.”
Partly in response to Dodaro’s concerns, Lankford, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), and 15 other senators wrote to OMB seeking an explanation for the lack of progress.
Lankford said OMB responded, saying “they are working through trying to figure out what they can do with a requirement from Congress to do it [the dynamic website]. Honestly, most of these items they can do on their own. They want funding obviously to take it farther, to get it set up.”
Once it’s up, Lankford said, “then the systems are in place and it’s just a matter of dropping in the numbers. None of these are numbers that should be hard … this is combining what they already have into one place that is searchable.”
Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc.