The Power of the Spending Tracker
Over the last few months, Congress has appropriated trillions of dollars in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid this flurry of spending, annual deficits are projected to be nearly $4 trillion this year, and the national debt now exceeds $26 trillion.
With limited resources and increasingly acute tradeoffs between competing programs, fiscal prudence will only grow in importance in the coming years. So too will the need to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire when they enact legislation that wastes precious taxpayer dollars.
Unfortunately, examining how individual members vote, figuring out which votes have the biggest impact on the federal budget and crunching the numbers so comparisons can be made across the entire delegation of representatives in Congress would be nothing short of tedious and time-consuming. That is, if not for Spending Tracker.
Even in normal times, Congress passes hundreds of bills every year that substantially affect the immediate and long-term fiscal health of the country. The impact of most pieces of legislation, however, is typically not considered or completely forgotten once passed, until it comes time to appropriate money for the numerous new programs and projects created in a previous year. Hence, most Americans accept that growth in the size of government is all but inevitable due to a lack of understanding of the complex nature of legislating programs and appropriating money.
Likewise, many lawmakers claim to oppose unsustainable spending, but whether or not their voting records follow their words is rarely scrutinized, and indeed, until recently, the ability to do so was all but impossible in any meaningful way.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll dive deeper into how Spending Tracker makes this possible, including how the site works, what you can do with it, and some of the insights that I’ve learned from building and using it myself. As I’ve documented before, there are all sorts of interesting takeaways that can come from looking more closely at congressional vote data, and suffice it to say, Spending Tracker can reveal quite clearly that our government doesn’t always operate as many pundits lead us to believe.
The Spending Tracker is built off of two sources of data: official cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the voting records of each member of Congress. In essence, the site cross-references those vote records with the fiscal impact of bills voted on by legislators. Because the CBO provides these estimates for almost every major piece of legislation enacted by Congress, it’s the most comprehensive source available for how bills ultimately affect the federal budget.
One of the reasons the Spending Tracker is so powerful is because it doesn’t just illustrate how funds are spent after the fact. Because it’s based on CBO’s estimates, it actually gives a forward-looking assessment of how Members of Congress are voting to impact future spending.
One of the fundamental problems with saying “Spending increased by X dollars during the time someone is in office” is that this framework doesn’t account for previously enacted legislation that caused spending to increase later on. But by looking ahead, Spending Tracker provides a level playing field for comparing the impact of individual legislators.
There are many more reasons why this resource is so important, but it’s best to start by checking it out for yourself. A visit to the site will show you:
- Member pages—Look up a member by name or zip code to see all the bills they’ve voted for and the impact of those votes.
- The Rankings—Quickly see how individual members rank relative to one another, with the ability to filter in a host of interesting ways (suggestion: check out the spending type filter!)
- The Legislation page—See all the bills that the CBO has recently provided estimates for, the status of that legislation and how much it would spend in upcoming years.
- State pages—Take a quick look at how the various Members within a state delegation compare with one another.
- Compare—Do a quick side-by-side of up to four Members of Congress.
- Legbranch.org: Creating useful transparency: How I learned to love sunlight and built the Spending Tracker
- Real Clear Policy: How Do We Measure What Congress Has Accomplished?
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