By NEIL GORDON and ANGELA CANTERBURY
On Monday, moments before Vice President Biden announced a new board to make all federal spending more transparent and to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, unveiled new legislation to do the same. It's great to see such healthy political competition to revolutionize how the government discloses federal spending. Yesterday, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced a companion to Issa's bill in the Senate, making it bipartisan and bicameral legislation.
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, would establish an independent body modeled after the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RAT Board), like the one created by the President's Executive Order, but the DATA Act gives the board specific authority to establish data standards to track and publicly report information about federal spending, including contracts, grants, loans, and agencies' internal expenses.
The DATA Act is a good framework for overhauling current federal spending transparency procedures with several major reforms to give taxpayers a more reliable way to find out how the government is spending their money, including:
- Establishing a universal standard for collecting data regarding federal spending and reporting it directly to a public database. The new database, to be called the Federal Accountability Portal, would replace USAspending.gov. Combining all agency expenditure data with the recipient-reported data will enable easier identification of waste and inefficiency.
- Creating the Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board, or FAST Board, as the successor to the RAT Board. The new FAST Board will establish common identifiers and consistent reporting standards and will be charged with receiving, organizing, and publishing all federal spending information. The Board would include several agency Inspectors General, deputy secretaries, and other senior officials and be led by a presidentially-appointed chairperson. The Board would have subpoena power.
- The DATA Act would require nearly all recipients of federal funds to report on their use of the money. This is a welcome improvement over USAspending.gov and the current reporting system under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA), which mostly relies on reporting by the agencies. The FAST Board's mission to standardize reporting throughout all of the federal government's spending information systems would also greatly improve transparency and accountability.
However, the DATA Act could use some improvements, which hopefully will be made when the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform considers the bill next week:
- Transparency, accountability, and utility could be greatly enhanced by tracking and combining other high value data such as Treasury expenditures, tax expenditures and delinquency information, and contractor and grantee performance data.
- Thus, the Board should be given the expertise and authority to eventually combine contractor performance information with the recipient reporting. The composition of the board could be improved by including representation from acquisition entities such as the General Services Administration, Defense Contract Management Agency, and others.
- Importantly, if this Board is to be as successful as the RAT Board at interrupting and preventing fraud, the legislation must include whistleblower protections for all federal fund recipients, as was stipulated in the Recovery Act.
- Similarly, lobbying contacts are reported by agency officials who are contacted regarding the policy or awards related to the Recovery Act. Though the mechanism for reporting should be improved (a database instead of PDFs, please), reporting of all contacts with administration officials regarding federal funds or policies relating to federal funds or the DATA Act should be required.
- Having an ombudsman or a mini-IG or regular reporting and auditing by another IG would help ensure the integrity of the board.
- Though the DATA Act requires sub-recipients to report to the Board, it could be strengthened by also requiring primary recipients to report to the Board how they distribute awards to subs. Certain kinds of information recipients must report under FFATA, such as the location of performance and the transaction type, are not required under the DATA Act, but should be.
- We also would like to see the sunset provision removed. Apparently, it is thought to be needed to comply with the 112th Congress's House protocols for new agencies and appropriations. If Congress fails to reauthorize the law by September 30, 2018, all transparency reforms built up during those years and to date could be lost (since the bill repeals existing laws and mechanisms such as FFATA, the RAT Board, and USAspending.gov). The sunset, if absolutely necessary for House rules, should be as narrow as possible, perhaps limited only to the Board itself.
- The bill currently allows the FAST Board broad discretion in exempting recipients from reporting. This could be overused, or even abused. The board shouldn't be able to create exemptions without limits.
POGO welcomes and supports the DATA Act as well as the President's new board, and especially his appointment of Earl Devaney to lead the Board. The time is ripe for this reform. If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that more must be done to open the government and cut fraud, waste, and abuse.
Neil Gordon is a POGO investigator. Angela Canterbury is POGO's Director of Public Policy.