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DATA Act, Scene two: Drop the independent board

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. // Carolyn Kaster/AP

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., plans to reintroduce federal spending transparency legislation without a provision for an independent oversight board that government budget officials have criticized, he told the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Government watchdogs, however, say some independent oversight is needed to ensure agencies take the new reporting requirements seriously.

The current version of the Digital Accountability and Government Transparency Act would require agencies and federal grant and contract recipients to file receipts and detailed reports on spending to an independent commission. The legislation mandates uniform data markers for different types of spending so that costs can be compared across agencies.

The reports would be posted on a public website similar to Recovery.gov, which tracks spending on the 2009 economic stimulus package.

The bill, known as the DATA Act, in its current form would create an extra layer of bureaucracy and could interfere with transparency initiatives that the Office of Management and Budget already is working on, Danny Werfel, controller of OMB’s Federal Financial Management office told committee members Wednesday.

Rather than “replowing the earth and changing every account we have,” Congress should consider targeted legislation that makes up for specific deficiencies in spending reporting practices, Werfel said.

“The DATA Act approach is really wiping the slate clean and saying we’re starting over with a whole new set of standards,” he said. “Architecturally [that] might make sense but it’s very expensive, and I worry we’ll lose a lot of time in tackling the specific challenges we have right now while we rebuild this building from the foundation.”

Werfel also argued the DATA Act’s proposed governing board, the Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission, would be unaccountable and could interfere with transparency work that OMB already has invested time and money in.

“There’s not apparently a way to disagree with that commission and there’s no built-in mechanism for the executive branch to object to or veto the standards [it sets] in any way,” he said. “It’s not clear how we give feedback. It’s also not clear in the bill how the public gives feedback.”

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office, disagreed with Werfel about the necessity of overarching legislation at Wednesday’s hearing. He said such legislation is necessary to ensure agencies comply with heightened requirements for spending transparency and an independent oversight board will help ensure that reporting is a priority.

Dodaro noted the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which tracks spending on the 2009 economic stimulus package, has been successful largely because it has a dedicated staff, an independent funding stream and legislative authority. The Recovery Board was a model for the DATA Act’s Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission.

It’s important to place spending transparency oversight outside OMB to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, Daniel Schuman, a policy analyst at the transparency group Sunlight Foundation, told Nextgov.

As an agency charged with implementing the Obama administration’s programs, OMB has a vested interest in making those programs appear successful, which will sometimes conflict with transparency, he said.

“It’s true that a lot of this stuff could have been done by OMB and they have the authority to do it, but they haven’t,” he said. The government “has been working on this issue for a decade or more . . . For whatever reason, the executive branch didn’t take up those issues and, frankly, it’s the role of Congress to direct executive branch agencies about what they should be doing.”

The House passed the DATA Act in April, sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Warner introduced the original Senate version of the DATA Act in June 2011.

If Warner’s revised DATA Act contains strong transparency requirements and significant oversight, there’s a solid chance a compromise can be worked out with the stronger House bill before the close of this Congress, according to Hudson Hollister, founder of the Data Transparency Coalition.

“It’s hard to predict,” he said. “Even if we don’t see legislation happen, the movement in government is clearly in favor of standardization [of spending data] and publication and that can only be good.”
 

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