Skip to content

How are your tax dollars being spent? We don’t always know

Recipients of federal funds routinely ignore disclosure rules. The COST Act would fix that

The COST Act would ensure that taxpayers are aware of how their hard-earned money is being spent, Norman, center, and Bellotti write.
The COST Act would ensure that taxpayers are aware of how their hard-earned money is being spent, Norman, center, and Bellotti write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Our federal government spends a maddening amount of money each year. Countless billions are arguably wasted on ineffective programs, useless research and bloated bureaucracy that should have been eliminated decades ago. Even more frustrating is that we often have no idea where public funds are sent or how they’re used.

Every year, the federal government relies on hundreds of companies, nonprofits, academic institutions and other entities to implement a wide variety of programs and projects. The 1989 Stevens Amendment requires most entities that receive federal funding to publicly disclose how those dollars are used.

But this law has largely been ignored by many recipients of government funds. For example, Stanford University repeatedly failed to disclose its use of millions of tax dollars in questionable research involving fetal tissues from aborted babies.

Similarly, American taxpayers presumably had no way of knowing that public funds were diverted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China for “subgrants” between 2014 and 2019 for an undisclosed research study on coronaviruses and Chinese bats.

In addition to widespread noncompliance and the lack of an enforcement mechanism, current law only applies to funds distributed by the Departments of Labor, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Education. This means we don’t have much transparency into where your tax dollars ultimately wind, given how many departments aren’t subject to this law.

To address these shortcomings and ensure taxpayers know how their money is being spent, we’re working to pass the Cost Openness and Spending Transparency, or COST, Act. A companion bill has been introduced by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

The COST Act would fix several things:

First, it would expand disclosure requirements to funds distributed by ALL federal agencies, not just the few listed above.

Second, it would strengthen the reporting mandate to require both federal agencies and entities receiving taxpayer dollars to publicly disclose “the dollar amount of the federal funding made available for the program, project, or activity” along with the percentage that federal funding represents to the program’s total cost.

Third, we need to put some teeth behind it. So this legislation would authorize the Office of Management and Budget to withhold funds from a recipient that does not publicly disclose how it spends public funds.

Taxpayers overwhelmingly support this commonsense initiative. A Lincoln Park Strategies poll from January found that 64 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats supported legislation to withhold funding from institutions violating this spending disclosure law. And 72 percent of all taxpayers said recipients of federal funding should be required to disclose how our money is spent.

Given the trend of irresponsible spending and a rapidly rising national debt, we need to make sure entities receiving your taxpayer dollars are accountable and transparent with your money. To a large extent, that’s not happening right now. 

The COST Act would ensure that taxpayers are aware of how their hard-earned money is being spent and give us the tools we need to hold federal grantees accountable for waste and abuse at home and abroad.

Rep. Ralph Norman is a Republican representing South Carolina’s 5th  District. He serves on the House Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security committees.

Anthony Bellotti is the founder and president of White Coat Waste Project, a 3-million-member taxpayer watchdog group.

Recent Stories

Alabama showdown looms between Carl and Moore

Supreme Court grapples with state social media content laws

Data suggests Biden or Trump may struggle with Congress in second term

State of suspension: Lawmakers gripe about fast-tracked bills under Johnson

Health package talks break down amid broader spending feud

Capitol Lens | A Dunn deal