Federal Spending Data for Congressional Oversight: What’s Possible Right Now, and What Could Be

Last year, the Treasury Department began collecting the entire government’s spending as a single, unified data set, following the mandate of the DATA Act of 2014.

Using a common data format created through a collaborative process, Treasury was able to assemble the “scraps & fragments” of disparate types of spending reports into “one consolidated mass,” just as President Thomas Jefferson had envisioned in a letter to his Treasury Secretary, 213 years before.

Jefferson hoped that with “one consolidated mass” out of disparate pieces of information, Treasury could create a way to allow both everyday Americans and their representatives in Congress to “comprehend them…investigate abuses, and consequently…control them.”

That is where USASpending.gov comes in.

USASpending.gov was originally created in 2006 as the government’s official portal for grant and contract data. Eight years later, the DATA Act directed Treasury to expand the portal to publish data covering all executive-branch spending -- including both the dollars that go out through grant and contract awards and those that don’t, such as salaries and operational costs.

USASpending.gov now offers many ways to view an agency’s, an account’s, or a recipient’s federal dollars. But to get the benefit of the platform, Americans and their representatives in Congress have to start using it -- even before all the spending data is perfect.

As Congress starts using standardized spending data, rather than relying just on old-fashioned documents, to conduct oversight and make appropriations decisions, it can respond more quickly to changes and develop more sophisticated insights--despite its declining resources. Even better: Congressional use of spending data can create a virtuous cycle. If agencies know Congressional appropriators are making decisions based on their DATA Act submissions, they’re more likely to put more effort into the quality of those submissions.

Thanks to a Democracy Fund grant, last month we hosted our first Congressional staff briefing on utilizing spending data. Our goal was twofold: First, we set out to introduce Congress and its research agencies (CRS, GAO) to ways in which USASpending.gov can be used to inform Congressional oversight and appropriations--right now. Second, we wanted to collect recommendations on how USASpending.gov, or perhaps a specialized version of it, could be improved in the future to help Congress perform its jobs better.

Here’s what we presented to our participants at the staff briefing--and what we learned from them.

What’s Possible Right Now

We introduced an audience of Congressional staffers, Congressional Research Service (CRS) professionals, and Government Accountability Office (GAO) leaders to a few key ways in which USASpending.gov can inform oversight and appropriations--right now.

Congressional staff are pressed for both time and expertise. They must prepare their Members to vote on legislation, committee hearings , and make decisions across a range of complex subject matters as broad as the federal government itself -- and often in the space of days or hours.

Congressional staff currently get their information about federal spending from the annual President’s Budget proposal, monthly and quarterly reports to the White House, the federal financial statements, and GAO and CRS reports. These documents are legally official and often comprehensive. But they are documents (aka PDFs). They can’t provide the specific subtotals or statistics that a Member might want for a given vote, hearing, or decision.

Congressional staff can also request documents and answers from executive-branch agencies through formal subpoenas, post-hearing Questions for the Record, and informal communications. Such methods can lead Congressional staff to accurate answers from authoritative experts. But they take time.

By presenting federal spending information as a unified data set, on an interactive platform, USASpending.gov provides both the specificity that federal spending documents lack and the immediacy that agency communications lack.

USASpending.gov is a work in progress. But even today, it can answer the following common appropriations and oversight questions.

How Much is Being Spent This Year on a Given Budget Function or Sub-Function?

The new USASpending.gov allows users to very quickly determine how much the executive branch spent on a given budget function or sub-function in a particular financial period -- and determine which agencies, and which accounts (at which agencies) that money came from.

For example, here’s how to find what the federal government spent on the Ground Transportation sub-function in the first three quarters of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, and where that money came from:

  1. From USASpending.gov, choose Spending Explorer.

  2. Select “Budget Function” from among the three options. A visualization of all spending on all budget functions from the available quarters of  FY 2018 appears.

  3. For ease of navigation, toggle the view from Treemap Icon to Table Icon, using the controls at the far right.

  4. Select the “Transportation” Budget Function.

  5. A breakdown of the four Transportation Sub-Functions appears: Air, Ground, Water, and Other. Click on “Ground Transportation.”

  6. Your result: a breakdown of the 169 different federal expenditure accounts that invested funds in Ground Transportation in the first three quarters of FY 2018. Notably, not all of these accounts are associated with the Department of Transportation! Homeland Security (Transportation Safety Administration) and other agencies obligated funds for this particular Budget Sub-Function too.

How Does an Agency’s Spending This Year Compare to the President’s Budget?

Every fiscal year, the President proposes a budget which then forms the basis of negotiations with, and within, Congress. For each agency and sub-agency, the President’s budget categorizes spending by object class. Object classes are the functional buckets of spending: compensation, contracts, grants, asset purchases, etc. Until the DATA Act and USASpending.gov’s expansion, the public and Congress received an annual PDF report on spending by object class. Now, for the first time, these breakdowns are available quarterly, and electronically navigable.

For example, here’s how to find what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has obligated so far in FY2018 to pay its investigative staff:

  1. From USASpending.gov, choose Spending Explorer.

  2. Select “Object Class” from among the three options. A visualization of all spending on all object classes from the available quarters of FY2018 appears.

  3. For ease of navigation, toggle the view from Treemap Icon to Table Icon, using the controls at the far right.

  4. Select the “Personnel Compensation and Benefits” object class.

  5. A list of all agencies’ spending on personnel compensation and benefits appears. Select Treasury.

  6. A breakdown of the Treasury Department’s accounts with spending on personnel compensation and benefits appears. You’ll see that these accounts correspond to the Treasury Department’s various offices and sub-agencies (This correspondence isn’t always so tidy, but is well-done at the Treasury Department). At the top, you’ll find “Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service.” It’s clear that as of the third quarter of FY2018, the IRS had obligated just over $3.2 billion for personnel compensation and benefits.

  7. It’s instructive to compare this amount to what the President originally proposed for FY2018! The President’s annual budget includes an appendix which breaks down his proposals for each agency and sub-agency. The FY2018 budget appendix, in the Treasury Department section, page 944, proposed for the IRS’s Enforcement program to spend just under $4.8 billion on personnel compensation and benefits over the full fiscal year. The three-quarter amount of $3.2 billion seems roughly in line.

Unfortunately, this is not possible for every agency. If you view all the Object Classes (Step 2 above), you’ll notice that the second-largest is “Unreported Data.” This item reflects where agencies have reported spending in their document-based quarterly and monthly reports to the White House -- and yet have not included that spending in their data submissions to USASpending.gov. The biggest offender? The Department of Defense, by far.

How Much Money was Obligated to X Company This Year?

One of the most common research questions for Congressional staffers preparing a Member for the hearing testimony of a large private-sector company is, unsurprisingly: what does that company make from taxpayer-funded federal contracts? This question has been difficult to answer without expert help, for one main reason: contractors are tracked using an identification code called the DUNS Number, and large contractors, with their multiple subsidiaries and affiliates, often register for multiple DUNS Numbers. Until recently, a search on USASpending.gov for a large contractor, such as Boeing, would reveal dozens of affiliated, yet distinct, companies each with its own DUNS Number and each with a separate total contracting amount.

Fortunately for taxpayers and Congress, the Treasury Department has recently begun to use previously-unpublished data on parent-child relationships to create a unified view of each large federal contractor.

For example, here’s how to view all of Boeing’s contracts:

  1. From USASpending.gov, choose the Profiles menu and select “Recipients.”

  2. Type “Boeing” in the search bar.

  3. USASpending.gov displays all of the different contractors with “Boeing” in their name, indicating which are corporate parents and which are children with the codes “P” and “C.” The very first entry is the main Boeing parent company. Click on that entry.

  4. USASpending.gov displays a profile page for the main Boeing parent company, with year-by-year and quarter-by-quarter breakdowns of all its subsidiaries’ federal contracts: $23.1 billion in FY2017, $17.5 billion so far in FY2018, and so on.

  5. Click on “View child recipients” to see a list of all entities whose federal contracts have been reported as Boeing-related. Most of these entities are subsidiaries with names other than “Boeing.” Clicking on any of these entities’ names will reveal its own profile page.

Like all USASpending.gov data, the information displayed on a recipient profile page is only as good as what the awarding agencies have reported to USASpending.gov. But as Congress comes to rely on the platform -- and as Members question contractor and agency executives based on information found here -- both contractors and agencies will have an incentive to ensure that they report accurately.

How Much Money was Obligated to My State This Year for X Purpose?

Members of the House and Senate build political careers on their ability to secure federal grants and contracts for grantees, contractors, and projects located in their home states. USASpending.gov’s new State Profile feature, for the first time, shows a real-time picture of their success.

For example, here’s how to explore Illinois’ federal funding for FY 2018.

  1. From USASpending.gov, choose the Profiles menu and select “States.”

  2. Choose Illinois.

  3. USASpending.gov displays a breakdown of all the federal funds paid to recipients in Illinois -- not just contracts and grants but also direct payments, such as Social Security and SNAP, loans, and other forms of assistance. In FY2017, this amounted to just over $81 billion.

Some nuances of spending reporting affect the State Profile. For example, the Department of Education reports all student loan amounts to USASpending.gov as $0, as you’ll notice if you select the “Loans” subcategory of federal funds, so the State Profile total for Illinois in FY2017 does not reflect the amounts federal student loans disbursed to students in that state during that year.

USASpending.gov isn’t just a navigation tool for the unified federal spending data set. It’s also a source for the raw data. For users who want to create their own analyses and visualizations, USASpending.gov’s Download Center offers customizable downloads and APIs of comprehensive award-related and account-related spending data.

What Could Be Possible

Armed with an enhanced understanding of how USASpending.gov already provides new ways to understand how federal tax money is spent, our participants divided into groups to brainstorm on what the future of data-driven Congressional oversight and appropriations could look like.

One key distinction was clear even before our Congressional staff briefing began. It’s important to separate the need to improve the quality and scope of the data from the functionality of the platform. First, even the most sophisticated display tools are useless if the underlying data set is of poor quality or doesn’t contain the needed information.

Second, most Congressional staffers don’t (yet) have data science skills. To get needed answers to their bosses quickly, they must be able to find them on USASpending.gov -- or perhaps, in the future, some other platform purpose-built for Congress.

Therefore, we asked our participants to answer two key questions.

  • Question 1 on the data: How could federal spending data be improved to support appropriations and oversight work?

  • Question 2 on the platform: If a federal spending data portal were built especially for Congressional appropriations and oversight, what should it look like?

Here is what our participants -- Congressional staffers, GAO leaders, CRS experts -- told us.

How Could Federal Spending Data be Improved to Support Appropriations and Oversight Work?

To support data analytics that empower Congressional appropriations and oversight, the unified federal spending data set has to be of good quality, but not perfect quality. And, as much as possible, it needs to be expanded to include more detail.

Our participants focused on just a few areas where agencies need to improve the quality of the data they submit to USASpending.gov. Fix these quality problems, they suggested, and the data set can be the main source for the information Congressional staffers need.

  • In some easily-identifiable cases, agencies are simply failing to submit the data that the law, and the rules written to implement the law, require. These instances are mostly well-documented by inspectors general, including the IGs of the Departments of Defense and Agriculture.

  • One data field earned more constructive criticism than any other: Place of Performance. Agencies need to push their program offices to report the place of performance of grants and contracts in a more uniform manner, because geospatial analyses of spending information are among the most fruitful uses of the data set and USASpending.gov.

  • As often happens at Data Foundation events, our participants cited the need for federal agencies to switch to a nonproprietary identification number, interoperable with codes used by regulatory agencies and international governments, to track grantees and contractors.

How do we focus agencies’ attention on these specific failures? Our participants suggested that Congressional hearings where members ask agency executives well-prepared questions have an uncanny focusing effect.

One of our breakout groups discussed a more daring tactic: Congress could take agencies’ submissions to USASpending.gov at face value, and assume, for the purposes of future appropriations decisions, that the amounts reported are the amounts actually spent. Ultimately, Congressional use of the data set -- in a manner visible and known to agencies -- will create a virtuous cycle of quality improvement, making the data set even riper for analysis, and encouraging more utilization.

Finally, our participants identified a few instances where additional information and detail could be brought into the existing data set -- with minimal effort compared to the original challenges already met.

  • USASpending.gov currently tracks expenditures -- but not receipts. Since the Treasury Department already maintains a complete system of receipt accounting, the flow of funds from receipt accounts to expenditure accounts could be added to the unified data set without requiring new compliance activities of agencies.

  • Similarly, most agencies already report their checkbook-level payments to Treasury. Treasury could add checkbook-level detail to the existing data set with a few modifications to that reporting process.

  • Somewhat more difficult, but still less than the original implementation of the DATA Act: agencies should be required to direct their grant and contract recipients to report multiple levels of sub-awards, down to a prescribed dollar figure, not level.

If a Federal Spending Data Portal were Built Especially for Congressional Appropriations and Oversight, what Should it Look Like?

We organized last month’s briefing with the idea that our participants’ feedback might illuminate ideas for a brand-new spending data portal constructed especially for members of Congress and their staff, and limited to Congressional use.

But the answers to our second question caused us to reconsider that assumption. After gathering suggestions, we believe the existing USASpending.gov portal could be upgraded to handle nearly all of the possibilities -- with, perhaps, one exception mentioned below.

  • USASpending.gov should include an electronic version of each agency’s Congressional Budget Justification, with a linkage to that agency’s performance on each of the categories of spending outlined in the justification.

  • USASpending.gov should illuminate known data quality problems as clearly as possible. The “Unreported Data” category on the Object Class visualization is a good start; other known inconsistencies should be visually identifiable to the user.

  • State profiles -- and, eventually, congressional district profiles -- should continue to improve, and should incorporate outside authoritative data as much as possible.

  • If the federal government ever succeeds in adopting a stable program inventory, that program inventory should be linked to USASpending.gov’s spending categories -- but a program inventory is not necessary to make USASpending.gov effective.

  • Our participants recommended only one function which couldn’t be incorporated into the existing, public USASpending.gov platform: a “ticketing and flagging” mechanism to allow members of Congress, and their staffs, to identify pieces of spending information on which they need more detail, with tickets or flags to be transmitted to agencies’ legislative affairs teams. This sort of mechanism might streamline communication between the Constitutional branches during busy budgeting and appropriations seasons.

Congress is on the cusp of a new era in oversight and appropriations. The vigorous use of spending data, rather than old-fashioned spending documents, will usher that era in. Thanks to the DATA Act, the necessary data set, though in need of continued improvement, exists. Judging from our participants’ input, so does the necessary spending data portal.

What’s needed next? Lots of education. Congress and its staff need to become power users of USASpending.gov.

Accordingly -- as resources permit, and subject to our Board’s guidance -- Congressional education on spending data is going to be a big part of the Data Foundation’s mission for the future.