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April 10, 2014

Rep. Quigley Raises Important Transparency Questions to OMB Director Burwell

By Daniel Schuman

At an appropriations hearing yesterday, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) some tough questions about its transparency practices. OMB Director Sylvia Burwell's answers were not entirely satisfying. We believe OMB should do more to make rulemaking and budgetary information more transparent.

Federal Rulemaking Transparency

Rep. Quigley first asked Director Burwell about greater transparency around activities by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is the part of OMB that reviews major rulemakings by agencies. OIRA is required under Executive Order 12866 (as amended in 2001) to be transparent regarding its meetings with lobbyists, changes it recommends to agency-proposed rules, etc. And yet, two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports (2003, 2009) and recent GAO testimony (March 2014), as well as analyses by the Center for Progressive Reform and the Center for Effective Government, have found OIRA's disclosure practices lacking.

For example, OIRA must do more to disclose how it affects agency rulemakings, says GAO, which identified 11 recommendations that OIRA has yet to implement (see Appendix E). Concerning lobbying, a Center for Effective Government report highlighted how what is disclosed on OIRA's website apparently does not match the large number of meetings that have taken place. And the Center for Progressive reform built a website that show how OIRA should disclose its lobbying meetings. The site includes important contextual information about who lobbied the agency on the issues on which they lobbied, including a much-improved interface that allows the public to easily search and sort through data.

To her credit, OMB Director Burwell responded that the agency always tries to do better in terms of transparency. She was unaware of any disclosure issues raised regarding lobbying reporting in the GAO reports. The scope and nature of disclosure of lobbying reporting was much more thoroughly raised in reports by advocacy organizations, whereas the GAO report focuses on disclosure of how OIRA influences agency rulemaking processes.

We strongly encourage OMB to modernize how OIRA discloses lobbying meetings, clean up and validate its data, and ensure all communications are recorded (as required by the executive order). We also believe that OMB should accept the recommendations raised by GAO regarding reporting its influence on the rulemaking process.

Federal Budget Transparency

The second issue Rep. Quigley raised concerned centralized public access to congressional budget justifications. These documents are incredibly important because they are an agency's justification to Congress that explains its annual funding request and provides important information about an agency's programs, projects, activities, performance, and needs.

OMB Circular A-11 (section 22.6c) requires each agency to prepare a congressional budget justification and post it on the agency's website within two weeks of submission. Unfortunately, justifications are not always possible to find and often are published in formats (such as PDFs) that make it difficult to pull data or compare multiple years.

OMB publishes tremendous amounts of information about the president's proposed budget on a central website, including an agency-by-agency breakdown of its budget request, proposed text of appropriations language, and tons of analytical data. What it does not include, however, are congressional justifications, which add significant amounts of detail and make much of this information understandable.

Rep. Quigley asked a two-part question: (a) would OMB gather these justifications and publish them on its central website, and (b) would OMB require budget justifications to be additionally published in additional formats (i.e. non-PDFs) so people easily can make use of the data.

Director Burwell started by explaining that public access to congressional justifications has been an evolutionary process, with agency publication of their justifications online being a fairly recent occurrence. She may have misunderstood Rep. Quigley's question regarding standard formats for reporting. It appears that Director Burwell thought Rep. Quigley was looking for standardization of what is disclosed, looking to the process or approach by which the justifications are generated. Rep. Quigley's question, however, went to how information is disclosed – as a PDF, a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, etc. Certainly OMB could direct agencies to publish information in multiple document formats without in any way impeding an agency's efforts to address the substance of information requested by congressional overseers.

Director Burwell added that OMB does not tell agencies how to create their justifications. That is not entirely accurate, as OMB Circular A-11 section 22.6 in fact spells out how what agencies must include in their justifications. For example, it directs that justifications should be structured as a performance plan submission, and list additional information that must be included (such as detailed descriptions of agencies' activities and proposals at the program, project, and activity level.) In fact, agencies are directed to provide proposed justifications to OMB representatives with sufficient time for OMB review.

We agree with Rep. Quigley and strongly suggest that OMB publish all congressional justifications at one central location, on OMB's website, regardless of wherever else the justification may be available to the public. We also agree that OMB should direct agencies to publish the information in multiple formats, not just PDFs, so that the public can easily make use of the data. Given OMB's role in generating its Circular A-11, these two transparency measures should be relatively easy for OMB to address.

Rep. Quigley was right to raise these crucial questions concerning OMB transparency and we hope Director Burwell will take his questions to heart and strive to make OMB more open and accountable to the public.

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