Two years ago, we teamed up with White Coast Waste to release “Ivy League Flunkers: Schools Fail on Federal Funding Disclosure.” The first-of-its-kind report examined whether Ivy League schools are complying with a federal transparency law on their federally backed animal research studies. Since 1989, a provision known as the Stevens Amendment requires that projects funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Education (ED), and Department of Labor (DOL) disclose in a press release or other documents how much federal funds were used for a project.
When we looked at a sample of 100 press releases for federally supported animal research projects at Ivy League schools, including hamster cage matches, we found a shocking 100% failure rate in compliance with Stevens Amendment disclosure.
After its release, a group of Senators noticed our report’s findings and wanted a further investigation into how agencies enforce compliance with the transparency law. Senators Ernst, Lankford, Paul, and Johnson asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an investigation into Stevens Amendment enforcement.
The results are in, and GAO found that HHS, ED, and DOL “do not monitor nor do they have processes in place to oversee grantee compliance” and cannot “ensure that grant funds are being expended in full accordance with these statutory and regulatory requirements.”
Specifically, only one subdivision of the DOL had a monitoring system in place, while the rest of the DOL and all of HHS and ED did not have any way to make sure the grant recipients were complying with the Stevens Amendment. These agencies account for more than $500 billion in grants each year or about 75 percent of all federal grants.
DOL and HHS agreed with GAO’s recommendations that they should enhance their monitoring and enforcement, while the ED tried to shirk responsibility for the compliance failures implying that they are not explicitly required to monitor grantee disclosure compliance. However, GAO reaffirmed that they are required to make sure that grantees are “in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements.” The Stevens Amendment is no exception.
Why should we care?
To accompany today’s GAO report’s findings, Senator Ernst released a few examples of taxpayer backed research that failed to disclose its federal funding as required by the Stevens Amendment. This includes:
- $1.3 million in cat studies, including one that found that cats that are pampered with treats and classical music every day are less likely to poop outside of the litter box or cough up hairballs
- A $405,000 NIH grant that found that children are more likely to do their chores if they put on a cape and pretend to be Batman
- A $90,000 grant to find out why people think a potato chip looks like Elvis
- A $256,000 to find out the dietary preferences of pigeons (sunflower seeds were the winner)
- A $178,000 to study how cats walk in tight spaces and another $1.3 million grant to train birds how to gamble
The Stevens Amendment may not have stopped any of these projects from being funded. But it would alert the public to the fact that our tax dollars are the ones funding them. The namesake of the provision, former Senator Ted Stevens, said in 1988 that taxpayers “ought to be informed how much money comes from Federal sources in any program, project, or grant activity.” That principle still applies today.
The findings of systematic failure by grantees and federal agencies to comply with and enforce the Stevens Amendment necessitates action. Fortunately, Senators Ernst, Paul and Lankford are introducing the Cost Openness and Spending Transparency Act (COST Act/S. 807), which will require every project supported by federal funds to disclose publicly, in documents such as press releases, the amount and percentage of the project supported by federal dollars. Failure to comply would result in up to 25% of the funds being withheld from the recipient.
Not only would this reiterate the Stevens Amendment disclosure requirements on HHS, ED, and DOL, it would expand them to cover grants made by all federal agencies and add teeth to the compliance. The COST Act would be a major win for taxpayers.
One of our priorities is to increase transparency and oversight in government spending. We are happy that these Senators are pushing for a more transparent and accountable government, which is absolutely essential to restoring the public trust.