Just before Congress left D.C. for the campaign trail, Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) reintroduced a bill to overhaul federal fiscal accountability. The new Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) is a trimmed-down version of the original bill introduced in the Senate by Warner and in the House by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), S. 1222/H.R. 2146. We applauded when the House unanimously passed it in April, and speculated that it could revolutionize fiscal accountability.
But since then, concerns about some of the more substantial structural reforms in the bill were raised by members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The new DATA Act addresses those concerns while still proposing much-needed improvements to the tools we have for tracking how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Right now, it’s a mess. No one—I mean no one in government or outside—has a clear, comprehensive, or accurate picture of how the federal government spends money. It’s like that old Indian fable about the blind men (us) and the elephant (federal spending). USAspending.gov, created by the Obama-Coburn “Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006,” was a good beginning, but it has failed to streamline spending data or ensure its accuracy.
The DATA Act would tackle at least two of the biggest impediments to getting a clear picture of the flow of federal dollars by standardizing the data across the government and combining data that is currently not joined or reconciled. Right now financial data is kept in a bewildering array of formats by agencies, which makes it nearly impossible to combine and compare. This morass of information breeds waste, fraud, and abuse. Data standardization is key to accuracy and accountability. The bill also stipulates that contract data (what’s promised by agencies) must be combined with the checkbook at the Treasury Department (what’s actually been spent). That way they can be reconciled and it will be easier to identify misspending. This may sound like plain commonsense, but it isn’t being done today, and it would give the public and policy-makers much better information.
There’s also beefed up accountability in deadlines, reporting, and other mechanisms for finding waste, fraud, and abuse. Treasury will create a Fraud Center, and a board will be established to help implement the DATA Act and apply some of the best practices and lessons learned from the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. This Federal Accountability Spending and Transparency Board was more independent and endowed with enforcement powers in the other versions of the bill, whereas in the new Senate bill the new board is charged only with advising and monitoring progress. Still this new board will help ensure that someone is minding the store.
The Project On Government Oversight supports this new DATA Act, but we are taking a closer look at how we might recommend improvements to the bill in a way that could win the bipartisan support required for passage this year. Meanwhile, our friends at OMB Watch did a nice job of outlining what’s in the bill (and what’s not). The Sunlight Foundation did this nifty redlining of the bill for those of you who are interested in how the actual text changed. Finally, the Data Transparency Coalition, headed by Hudson Hollister, the former Issa staffer who worked closely with the Congressman on crafting the original DATA Act, has been instrumental in moving the reform forward. You can check out their take here.
Angela Canterbury is the director of public policy for the Project On Government Oversight.Follow @citizena