Coalition Urges Transparency Reforms for CBO & NTUF Highlights CBO’s Baseline Problem

The proposed reforms would increase transparency of CBO’s legislative cost analyses by standardizing the formatting of URLs, improving search functionality, and providing consistent formatting of tables with the cost estimate data.
Demian Brady
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June 19, 2017

Through our Taxpayers’ Budget Office project, National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) is spearheading an effort to enhance accountability and transparency over the legislative scorekeeping process. Today we proudly joined with 26 organizations urging the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to adopt digital best practices. The proposed reforms would increase transparency of CBO’s legislative cost analyses by standardizing the formatting of URLs, improving search functionality, and providing consistent formatting of tables with the cost estimate data. The full letter is available here along with a list of the signatories.

 

In addition, NTUF would urge CBO to do a better job of reporting the baselines used in its cost estimates. This would provide lawmakers and taxpayers with a clearer understanding of how much we have spent on the program in question, and what the net impact on spending that would be expected to occur if the proposal is enacted. This information used to be regularly featured in the tables that CBO includes in its reports. Maybe it is a side effect of its increasing workload, but such prior-year baseline spending is reported less frequently in tables in recent years. Instead, CBO’s tables only show the proposed changes in the proposal. Prior appropriations levels may be included footnotes or on later pages in the text of the report, making it more difficult for readers to understand the context of the figures and the bottom line impact on the budget.

 

For example, H.R. 2039, introduced in 2015, would have reauthorized the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017. In such cost estimates, CBO will report on the authorized level of spending in the bill, and its estimate of outlays, i.e., the spending. Here is what CBO’s table in its estimate showed for the total changes in spending for years 2016 through 2020:

 

 

The text in the report notes that NASA received an appropriation of $18 billion, but this doesn’t help explain what the table shows for outlays those first two years.  For most programs, not all outlays occur in the same year in which they are authorized so there are additional outlays occurring in 2016 under current law. But without showing that data, it is difficult to make sense of the bottom line spending on NASA.

 

By contrast, CBO’s score of similar legislation in 1999 to authorize NASA for the next three years did a better job of displaying the information in context:

 

 

The tables clearly shows NASA spending under the current law at that time, the proposed changed in the bill, and the net spending levels that would occur.

 

It is unclear why CBO stopped regularly including this information in its legislative analyses, but it would be beneficial for taxpayers and policymakers to provide a proper context for the figures it includes in its estimates.

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