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Congress to Feds: You're On the Hook for Spending Transparency

“We looked for a collaborative effort in this process but we’re also holding their feet to the fire,” Senate bill co-sponsor Mark Warner, D-Va., said.

“We looked for a collaborative effort in this process but we’re also holding their feet to the fire,” Senate bill co-sponsor Mark Warner, D-Va., said. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Passing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was one thing. Implementing it will be a much bigger challenge. The success of the open government measure Congress passed on Monday, which the president has pledged to sign, depends on ensuring the executive branch implements the law’s mandates on schedule, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

Some White House officials remain concerned Congress’ implementation plan for the DATA Act, which requires standardized coding for federal grant and contract spending, is too quick, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said.

The bill’s sponsors remain convinced it can be implemented on schedule, he said.

“We looked for a collaborative effort in this process but we’re also holding their feet to the fire,” Warner said. “Saying it just can’t happen at the federal level while it has happened in every other major enterprise . . . just isn’t a good enough answer.”

Warner sponsored the Senate version of the DATA Act along with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. The House version of the bill was sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member.

Issa, Warner and Portman all spoke on Tuesday at the Data Transparency Summit hosted by the Data Transparency Coalition, an advocacy group that strongly supported the DATA Act.

The new law begins with a two-year pilot program during which the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget will develop uniform coding for federal spending data and develop ways to publish it in machine readable and downloadable formats.

The goal is that people inside and outside of government can use the data to spot inefficiencies, duplication, waste and fraud in federal spending and to suggest alternatives.

“Quite frankly, if you can’t count something you can’t manage it,” Issa said.

The Government Accountability Office estimates federal agencies lose at least $10 billion annually to waste, duplication and inefficiency in the information technology sphere alone.

More clarity about how federal money is spent could make discussions about cutting the federal budget deficit significantly easier, Issa argued.

The stepped up reporting could also make it easier for champions of government programs to make their case for those programs’ effectiveness, Warner said.

The DATA Act is also aimed at raising contractor oversight while at the same time lowering the reporting burden on federal contractors and grantees who now often have to report the same spending data multiple times in multiple formats.

The bill will make it easier for the executive branch and legislators to track contracting priorities, Issa said, for instance, by tracking whether contracts reserved for minorities or impoverished districts are being subcontracted in a way that diminishes their impact.

The greatest danger for the bill, Issa said, is that the pilot program will be extended multiple times without permanent changes in reporting taking effect. The White House, in a memo leaked in January, expressed concern that the DATA Act’s reporting requirements might be too onerous, but the Obama administration never officially opposed the law.  

The law is modeled on reporting requirements from the Government Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversaw spending on President Obama’s 2009 Stimulus Bill. 

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