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House, Senate agree on measure requiring standard format for spending data

House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a provision in a bill that will require federal agencies to post spending data on the Internet using uniform formats, a move that will make it easier for regulators and the public to analyze contracts and recovery funding, according to a draft reviewed by Nextgov.

The measure could gain full congressional approval before lawmakers break for the November elections, some House aides said recently.

House and Senate staff currently are reconciling differences between each chamber's versions of the 2009 Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act (S. 303), which will bolster Grants.gov, an online gateway that allows Americans to apply for federal aid.

One compromise measure will require agencies to adhere to data standards created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology when publishing spending information such as documents associated with entitlement programs, federal contracts and loans.

The House included a similar measure in its bill, which passed in December 2009, but the legislation the Senate approved in March 2009 does not address reporting standards. The House's proposal allows agencies to pick their own standards rather than waiting for NIST to issue guidance.

The aim of the formatting rule is to boost not only consistency in spending reports, but also transparency. The most widely used format in the financial industry, eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), allows computer users to easily compare figures and check for proper accounting because its entry fields are the same in every report. Such standards now are requisite for corporate financial statements submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, introduced the House language in May 2009 and the committee's chairman, Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., then co-sponsored with Issa an amendment to the grant-making bill that included Issa's initial proposal.

As with the House-passed measure, the new negotiated language demands the selected standards be nonproprietary, searchable and readable by computers.

Under the discussion draft, agencies would have at least a year to comply with the requirements, which would apply to every stage of the reporting process. Departments would use the same technology for collecting, analyzing and sharing federal financial information. Content that appears on USAspending.gov, which tracks all federal awards, and any business information that agencies make public, would have to be available in the new formats.

In the past, some federal officials have raised concerns that forcing agencies to comply with standards might stifle innovation or be too costly.

House lawmakers who finalized the financial regulatory overhaul with the Senate said they secured approval from the Obama administration for a rule that would have ensured regulators collect and publish data from financial institutions using such formats. At the last minute, senators inexplicably scrapped the idea, prompting the head of the House Financial Services Committee to commit to expediting passage of an almost identical stand-alone bill on the House floor.

Neither the House legislation nor the new proposal names specific standards, such as XBRL, so agencies are not beholden to outdated computer language if better formats become available.

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