By DANA LIEBELSON
Last week, congressional committees held hearings on the General Service Administration's (GSA) lavish spending at a conference in Las Vegas. As lawmakers examined the scandal--which included allegations that agency officials spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on a loft suite party and a clown--one question kept repeating itself: how can we keep this abuse of federal spending from ever happening again?
Dozens of good government groups from across the ideological spectrum will send a letter to the House today supporting a critical transparency bill: the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act. The bill (H.R. 2146) would revolutionize federal spending transparency and help prevent bureaucratic waste, fraud and abuse—like the GSA scandal. But in order to pass, the bill needs two thirds of the House to show up and vote for the Act.
We have a real chance to make a difference, but we have to move fast: tell your Member of Congress to pass the DATA Act and shed light on where taxpayer dollars are being spent.
Not only does the DATA Act have backing from transparency and accountability groups as diverse as the Cost of Government Center (an affiliate of Americans for Tax Reform), the Sunlight Foundation, and OMB Watch, but also businesses like Microsoft and the tech companies represented in the Data Transparency Coalition. It’s not hard to see why—this is a win-win bill for government, taxpayers, and private businesses.
The DATA Act, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and cosponsored by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and 13 others, dramatically overhauls all federal spending by modeling the transparency and accountability in the Recovery Act. Like the Recovery Act, or stimulus, the DATA Act creates an independent commission responsible for monitoring federal spending and making this information public in a one-stop-shop portal (like Recovery.gov). This commission would include transparency rock stars like Inspectors General, deputy secretaries, and other senior officials led by a presidentially-appointed chairperson.
This isn’t the only thing the DATA Act does. The bill essentially builds upon the advancements made by USAspending.gov (created by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act) by establishing a uniform national standard for collecting federal spending data and reporting it directly to a public database. At present, government agencies report this data in hundreds of different formats, which has made it nearly impossible to get accurate information about how the government spends our tax dollars.
Additionally, in USASpending.gov, taxpayers must rely on reporting by government agencies to get spending information. The DATA Act, like the Recovery Act, would greatly improve this by requiring recipients of federal funds to publicly show how they’re spending the money. This would go a long way towards shedding light on government contracting, subcontracting, and grantees.
Not surprisingly, some big contractors and grantees have been lobbying against the bill, calling it an “unfunded mandate.” POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury points out that this is simply not true, given that the DATA Act will simplify and streamline recipient reporting—saving recipients lots of money on reporting compliance, particularly the recipients that report to multiple agencies. As for the potential burden for small businesses and human service providers, Canterbury says that “grantees and contractors that receive less than $100,000 in a year or less than $25,000 in a single transaction are exempt from the reporting requirement."
[Recipient reporting] can be done by even the smallest of non-profits, and it is not the same size or scope of the public company mandate by the SEC. The DATA Act will help us get control of spending and actually save money in the process.
We have also heard that giant contractors and grantees like universities have been complaining about sub-recipient reporting—but this is exactly the kind of information Americans need in order to understand how their taxpayer dollars are really being spent. Right now there is a lot of disconnect between what the government spends, and how this translates to services enjoyed by taxpayers. As the Recovery Act has already proven, transparency helps show the value of government spending and also allows for waste and fraud to be detected and deterred.
Perhaps the real concern that big contractors and grantees have with the DATA Act is that it will make it a lot easier to see how they actually spend federal money. For example, the recent scandal with SAIC (a huge federal contractor) regarding kickbacks and fraud in a big New York City contract leads us to wonder if the company has been treating its federal contracts similarly. If the DATA Act were in force, we would have much more insight into their contracting practices—and they could be deterred from ripping taxpayers off in the first place.
Additionally, POGO has learned that the bill we be funded by pairing it with legislation to limit travel and conferences within the executive branch—also a response to the recent GSA spending scandal. Reducing government waste and increasing transparency? That makes sense from every angle.
This bill was passed unanimously by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It has a good chance of sailing through the House—but only if Members of Congress know about it. The bill needs 291 votes in order to pass. This is a high bar, but is one that's possible to clear. Contact your representative today and urge him or her to be present and vote “yes” on the DATA Act. We simply can’t afford to continue to let our taxpayer dollars get divvied up in the dark.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow