Clearspending: Congress Doesn’t Know Much it’s Spending. And We Can Prove It

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BY ELLEN MILLER – Congress doesn’t know much it’s spending. And we can prove it.

In 2007, then-Senator Obama and Senator Tom Coburn championed into law, a website meant to provide the public with information about how the federal government spends our tax dollars. This was an important step toward making public information available online. The idea was that each agency would report what they were spending and how they were spending it to one easy to access website.


The government website is impressive, at least on the surface. But now the site has been around for nearly three years and though it’s gone through three flashy redesigns, it’s almost useless when it comes to finding the information that’s supposed to be there.

Sunlight launched last week, a site that tracks and illustrates just how broken this federal reporting data is. You can think of it like a scorecard that analyzes how well U.S. government agencies are reporting their spending data on

See for yourself at

What we found using Clearspending is that nearly $1.3 trillion in federal reporting data from 2009 is unreliable. That’s the vast majority of the government spending data for that year that the project examined. Some of the numbers reported are too big, some are too small, and some are missing completely. Other entries are late or don’t have the detail that’s required by law.

The government has known about the problems we’ve illustrated on Clearspending, and they say they’re working to fix it. But the problem isn’t the website design, it’s the quality of the data — the public information — that the government is collecting.

Learn more at

Challenges like data collection quality aren’t simple, glamorous, or even particularly easy to say. They are, however, crucial to making sure that we are moving toward a truly more open and transparent government. We hope that by shining a light on these problems, they may actually get fixed.

Submitted by Ellen Miller, Executive Director, Sunlight Foundation