GAO Report Says Federal Govt. Lacks Specificity When Reporting Fees, Fines and Penalties

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Mar 11, 2019

In a recently issued report, the Government Accountability Office said that lawmakers and other stakeholders could be more effective if they had access to more specific and granular data on fees, fines and penalties, along with their associated amounts, in contrast to the the broad, budget-account level at which such information is presented.

While individual agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor, do have online, searchable databases of individual fees, fines and penalties, the GAO said they "are not comprehensive and cannot be aggregated to create government-wide data because they vary in format and in the level of detail presented." Conversely, the government-wide totals for fees that Office of Management and Budget reports in Analytical Perspectives are not presented at a more disaggregated level, such as by agency or program. The report noted that in fiscal year 2017, the OMB reported $335.4 billion as a government-wide total of fee collections, and while it did list some more specific data for the subset of fees that were offsetting collections and offsetting receipts—specifically, it listed 11 fees totaling $258.4 billion collected by specific agencies—it presented the remaining $72.3 billion as “all other user charges” without identifying the agency or program.

The GAO report also noted that "OMB's government-wide total of fees includes collections that are not fees and excludes some fee collections. The total includes all collections for accounts in which fees make up at least half of the account's collections and excludes all others. OMB does not direct agencies to regularly review and update the accounts included in the total. Therefore, if accounts' makeups change such that fee collections drop below, or rise above, the 50 percent threshold, accounts may have incorrect fee designations and the total may be inaccurate."

While the OMB does contain disaggregated, specific data, it is not open to the public and is used only internally to calculate the government-wide totals. The GAO argued that making this data public would both improve transparency and aid in decision-making. It also recommended that the OMB inform the public of the limits of its current data collection by describing the 50 percent criteria that OMB uses to identify accounts with fees or by directing users to the relevant sections of OMB Circular No. A-11. Further, the GAO said the OMB should instruct agencies to regularly review the application of the user fee designation in the OMB database, and to describe in the Public Budget Database User’s Guide that budget authority is reported net of any offsetting collections, such as collections of fees, fines and penalties. 

As of March 4, the OMB had not provided comments in response to the report. 

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