What is Government Transparency Worth?

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in February, 2011 found numerous examples of overlap and potentially unnecessary duplication in government programs or activities. They concluded that potentially billions oft tax dollars could be saved annually by “reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation and addressing these other cost savings opportunities.” This GAO report was the impetus for the Taxpayers Right to Know Act (H.R. 3609), sponsored by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) and its Senate companion bill S. 1957, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Coburn (R-OK).

On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office published its report on the cost to implement H.R.3609, finding that its implementation would cost around $100 million over a five year period. The legislation calls for “government agencies to identify and describe each program they administer, the cost to administer the program, expenditures for services, the number of program beneficiaries, and the number of federal employees and contract staff involved. Under the bill, that information would be posted on each agency’s Web site. In addition, H.R. 3609 would require an annual report by the Office of Management and Budget that identifies duplicative federal programs.”

This situation is similar to that of the DATA Act, which the CBO estimates will cost $575 million over 5 years.

Both these bills are focused on increasing transparency in government, which as taxpayers I think we all value. However, transparency comes at a real cost, which must be weighed against the value returned. Taken together, these two actions would cost taxpayers $135 million per year. In government terms, that may be a small sum, but it is real money and, as we hear every day in the news (and feel in our pockets) – times are tight. Is the transparency afforded by these pending laws worth their cost? Maybe – but I don’t hear that question being discussed. Unfortunately, our Senators and Representatives seem too focused on one-upping their opponents and winning elections to have a cost-benefit discussion that isn’t poisoned by political rhetoric.

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