Everyone Agrees It Should Be Easier to Say How Much the Government Spends

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DATA Act's proposed common codes and data standards win broad praise.

Tracking federal spending can be a daunting task, auditors and transparency advocates told a Senate panel on Wednesday. Sometimes it’s impossible.

In 2012, for example, the Government Accountability Office was unable to fulfill a request from the House Appropriations Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus asking whether government spending on economic development in disadvantaged communities was helping minority residents there, GAO Director for Strategic Issues Stanley Czerwinski told lawmakers.

“The data just weren’t there to do that,” he told the Senate Budget Committee’s Government Performance Task Force.

GAO noted in its report that it did not have data on where economic development grant funded services were delivered, who benefited from them and whether they had actually improved economic conditions in specific cities or counties. 

“How can we do our job supplying you with information when the data aren’t there?” Czerwinski asked task force members.

The task force’s chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has introduced legislation aimed at fixing this problem. The legislation, known as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, would mandate common codes and common data standards for spending reports across the government.

That means GAO and other watchdogs would be able to identify all spending aimed at a particular purpose regardless of what agency it came from. It also means agencies would have a better view of where they’re duplicating each others’ efforts, and it would be easier for smart computer programs to pore over grant and contract data to root out fraudsters, including barred contractors that have snuck back into the system.

It would also give the public a much clearer picture of how taxpayer dollars are spent.

Currently, many offices use different coding systems for spending items even within the same agency, and different agencies may refer to the same vendor using a different name, such as General Motors rather than GM.

Warner’s bill is waiting to be marked up by the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. That will likely happen in October, a Senate aide told Nextgov. A House version of the bill was passed out of that chamber’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a voice vote in May. That bill was sponsored by Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

Confusing spending codes, loose guidance and enforcement and differences between the computer systems that track spending within agencies and the systems that report on that spending to the White House, Congress and the American public have conspired to make federal spending increasingly opaque, witnesses said Wednesday.

The Sunlight Foundation identified more $900 billion in unreported or misreported spending on the government’s main spending transparency site, USASpending.gov, in 2011, Thomas Lee, director of the open government group’s Sunlight Labs division, said.

The government site did not list any spending on Medicare insurance, Medicare prescriptions or student loans, Lee said, likely because of guidance that some agencies read as freeing them from reporting on spending that ultimately goes to an individual rather than an organization.

That produces a skewed picture of spending by the Health and Human Services and Education departments, he said. Agencies also don’t report spending on employee salaries to the site but do report on contractor salaries, which produces a confusing picture of spending governmentwide.

“The most important thing that can be done around spending data systems is to make the systems that are used for public disclosure -- and to inform Americans -- the same ones agencies use to track their own spending and report within government,” Lee said. “Right now that’s not the case at all and it makes the public disclosure systems an afterthought by and large.”

GAO issued a report in conjunction with Wednesday’s hearing that supported the DATA Act’s main goals. It called on the government to: standardize spending data, involve spending recipients in reporting and create clear lines of authority for spending transparency initiatives.

A White House-appointed board recommended several changes that overlap with DATA Act goals in late 2011. Issa also introduced an earlier draft of the DATA Act that year. That version of the act was passed by the House but not in the Senate before the close of the 112th Congress.

The DATA Act and White House initiatives are based on lessons learned from the board that oversaw spending on President Obama’s $840 billion stimulus bill. That board won bipartisan accolades for tracking spending in a transparent way and for keeping fraud in stimulus grants and contracts significantly lower than in overall government spending.

“I didn’t come to this totally as a neophyte,” Warner said of his time in the Senate on Wednesday. “I came as a business guy and a governor. Until I got this job I didn’t fully appreciate how completely inefficient much of our federal government was in terms of its organization, in terms of its structure and clearly in terms of issues around transparency.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the history of the DATA Act; it passed the House during the 112th Congress but not the Senate. This story has been updated to add details from GAO.

Charles S. Clark contributed to this report. 

(Image via Peeradach Rattanakoses/Shutterstock.com)