Most everyone agrees that the 2011 budget deal was an imperfect funding measure, but Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) yesterday argued that one compromise that trimmed $26 million may have been penny wise but will turn out to be pound foolish.
The senator was referring specifically to the reductions made to the Electronic Government Fund, which provides money to develop websites like USAspending.gov, data.gov and the federal government's IT Dashboard that have been lauded by government transparency advocates. Carper yesterday argued transparency offers one of the best avenues for cutting wasteful and duplicative spending in the federal government because it provides increased accountability.
Carper's comments came at a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on implementing the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act that was passed by Congress at the end of last year.
The legislation was the first major update to the original 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), a law that is generally acknowledged to have fallen short of the sweeping government efficiency goals that Congress and the White House had hoped it would achieve 18 years ago. With their updated version of the law, Congress and the White House are once again optimistic about finding ways to trim government bureaucracy and better account for taxpayer dollars.
One effort that the White House has already been working on as part of its commitment to improving government performance is a new website, performance.gov, which will give the public access to information on agency performance objectives and action plans as well as ongoing progress reports.
In explaining why such a website is necessary, Carper pointed to past efforts by one of the Obama administration's most outspoken opponents, small government champion Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). While often on the other side of the White House these days, Coburn worked with then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in 2006 on the "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act," which called for the creation of an easy-to-use website that allowed citizens to track the recipients of all federal funds.
"This legislation marks a small but important step in the effort to change the culture in Washington, D.C.," Coburn said of his bill in 2006. "American taxpayers soon will be equipped with a significant tool that will make it much easier to hold elected officials accountable for the way taxpayer money is spent."
"What Coburn encouraged us to do was provide greater transparency in federal spending," Carper said. "A great way to leverage our collective efforts is by investing a relatively small amount of money to make sure there's transparency."
Jeffrey Zients, who serves as the Office of Management and Budget's head of procurement policy, said at yesterday's hearing that he expects that a basic version of performance.gov will be available to the public in a matter of weeks. However, 2011 funding cuts will likely mean that a slew of enhancements to the site will be delayed or set aside.
Zients said in his testimony that OMB plans to expand and improve the public site to meet new transparency goals set out in the GPRA Modernization Act by October 2012, but "the exact timing and level of sophistication for those improvements will depend upon future funding levels."
Zients noted that $20 million or so for the Electronic Government Fund would represent a relatively small investment considering the government spends $80 billion on IT efforts each year.
As they discussed the implementation of the many provisions of the GPRA Modernization Act -- such as one requirement that agencies designate a chief operating officer and a performance improvement officer whose job would be to implement cost-saving measures and find ways to eliminate duplicative programs -- some lawmakers used yesterday's hearing as a sounding board for additional proposals that they believe can cut government waste.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) at one point argued the merits of a zero-based budgeting approach by which every few years every agency would begin the budget process at zero and have to justify every one of its programs. Government waste can sometimes be perpetuated, he argued, when agencies simply start the budgeting process with their budget for the previous year.
Such a budget approach "is something that is worth fuller discussion," Pryor said.
Carper, meanwhile, lamented the fact that, although the president includes proposals funding rescissions for individual programs each year in his budget proposal, Congress is not required to even consider those proposals.
"I'm not interested in giving the president carte blanche," Carper said. But "we should have to vote on that stuff not just ignore it. ... Someone needs to be held accountable."