You Ask, We Don't Answer: How Much Money Does the Federal Government Spend?

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Authority, Outlays, and Obligations: oh my!

We’ve been talking about the DATA Act this week because it represents an opportunity to improve our insight into how the U.S. federal government spends money. Tracking precise amounts of federal spending is tricky, but it’s critical to having an informed discussion about the budget.

“Federal spending” can mean different things. When Congress and the president pass a budget, they’re granting budget authority to federal agencies, which gives them the legal authority to spend money.

Once the agencies have budget authority, they enter into obligations, which essentially set money aside for a designated purchase, award, or federal employee paycheck. Obligations are reported on and on the now-defunded Consolidated Federal Funds Report. We use the latter as the source of spending information in our Federal Priorities Database.

Finally, there are outlays, which happen once the Treasury actually cuts a check.

So…how much money does the federal goverment spend?

Because there are different groups and data formats involved when reporting obligations and outlays, it’s hard to reconcile them. In other words, we often don’t know how much the government actually spends on a particular program.

Really? How can we fix that?

The DATA Act is a step in the right direction because it sets up a single website to report spending amounts from the agencies and the Treasury Department. The website will also show award and contract amounts that are self-reported by their recipients, creating an additional check on the government-reported amounts.

The DATA Act passed unanimously in the House and is now in a Senate committee. If you’d like to get it out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote, WashingtonWatch tells you what to do.

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