Transparency Groups to Congress: Appropriations Logjam Hurts Democracy

10/02/2013 01:12 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

National Priorities Project (NPP), Center for Effective Government, and the Sunlight Foundation today released a joint letter to the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, decrying the breakdown in the appropriations process and its deep costs to participatory democracy. Pointing to Congress' decade-long failure to follow the appropriations process prescribed by law and legislative procedure, the organizations called on House and Senate leaders to commit to a predictable, transparent appropriations process that safeguards citizens' ability to weigh in on their priorities for how tax dollars should be spent.

The letter reads, in part:

"Citizens need and deserve an appropriations process that is regular and clear so they can weigh in with their priorities. The appropriations process should allow funding proposals to progress through the various appropriating bodies of the legislative branch toward final passage and resolution, providing opportunities for the public to learn about and influence the legislation along the way. Continuing resolutions cobbled together to avoid government shutdown bypass the input of citizens, and thus endanger our democratic process.

"We advise Members of Congress and senators to ask themselves, 'If my constituents wanted to influence the last-minute appropriations we attempted to avoid this shutdown, how would they have done so?' We suspect an answer to such a question would be hard to give."

The letter points out that while Congress did not meet the October 1 deadline for their core budgetary responsibilities, they found time for frivolous activities including specifying the size of blank coins to be stamped into souvenirs for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Freedom to Fish Act, and legislation renaming a bridge in St. Louis.

Read the full letter (pdf).

"There's no turning away from it: Congress is broken. National polls tell us that House and Senate members who hold the budget process hostage to politics and special interests are doing so against the will of the vast majority of Americans. Not once in the past decade has Congress met the October 1 deadline with a full suite of appropriations bills in hand, constructed through an open and transparent process. This lack of respect for their core responsibility -- budgeting and appropriating funds -- does not just undermine faith in Congress as an institution, it locks out essential citizen participation," NPP Executive Director Jo Comerford said.

"Americans can't be left behind when it comes to federal budget and tax issues. In recent years, political brinkmanship has prevented us from having a more accountable government. Now is the time for greater transparency around the federal funding process," said Ellen S. Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

"It is time to put politics aside and govern. The federal budget should not be held up by a minority of representatives who want to undermine one law," said Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the Center for Effective Government. "Last year, the American people voted, and a majority voted for the president, not for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It's time for the full House to vote on a clean continuing resolution, and then the House and Senate can get back to negotiating over which programs best serve the American public."

The three organizations teamed up to send their message to Congress based on their shared commitment to transparency and responsive government.

  • National Priorities Project's mission is to make our complex federal budget transparent and accessible so people can exercise their right and responsibility to oversee and influence how their tax dollars are spent.

  • The Center for Effective Government works to build an open, accountable government that invests in the common good, protects people and the environment, and advances the national priorities defined by an active, informed citizenry.
  • The Sunlight Foundation uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency.
  • The groups underscored that Congress has a core responsibility to recommit to exercising its "power of the purse" in a transparent way to restore citizens' faith in their institution.

    "A return to the regular federal appropriations process would not only strengthen our democracy but also help restore Americans' faith in Congress as an institution, which is at its nadir," the letter reads.

    National Priorities Project (NPP) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that makes our complex federal budget transparent and accessible so people can exercise their right and responsibility to influence how their tax dollars are spent. NPP believes the U.S. federal budget will reflect the values and priorities of a majority of Americans when all people have the opportunity and ability to participate in shaping our nation's budget.