Hill negotiators weigh uniform standard for spending reports

Aides are trying to reach consensus on House-passed language that would direct agencies to use the same format for financial data.

Congressional aides and Obama administration officials are attempting to resolve concerns about a House-passed measure that would require federal agencies to use a single data format for exchanging spending information.

The House version of a bill (S. 303) to strengthen Grants.gov, the gateway to applications for most government awards, contains a provision stipulating the Office of Management and Budget must within 18 months of enactment issue rules directing agencies to use a uniform standard that meets certain criteria. Supporters of a single standard say it would make it easier to scrutinize federal spending and the activities of companies receiving federal funds.

Under the House legislation, which passed in December 2009, citizens would be able to download and search information on agencies' finances and bailout recipients' capital. Opponents of the measure say conforming to a single standard and changing business processes to implement it could be difficult for some agencies. This provision is not in the version of the legislation the Senate passed. Currently, House and Senate aides are working on a consensus draft, according to staff in both chambers.

The present proposal states the format must be widely accepted in the marketplace, nonproprietary, and searchable and viewable on any computer. The language does not name a specific standard, but those criteria are the underlying attributes of eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), a computer language common in the business world. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation already use XBRL to simplify the process of analyzing financial filings.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a long-standing champion of online transparency, supports the intentions of the House provision but has concerns about how agencies will be able to adhere to a uniform reporting format, a Democratic committee staffer said. The legislation likely would require agencies to spend $50,000 to $100,000 on new technologies to standardize on XBRL, information management specialists estimate. The supporting software checks to see if financial reports contain all the data fields required by XBRL and whether the numbers add up correctly.

Lieberman is working with the House to resolve his concerns, hopefully within the coming weeks, the staffer added. Republican Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee aides said they are reviewing the House's addition, which represents a significant change. White House officials also are meeting with congressional staffers to discuss the standards section.

"We're working closely with National Institute of Standards and Technology to make sure standards do not thwart innovation" by adopting a format that could become outdated in a few years, "but also to make sure there is consistency," said Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who proposed the single standard provision, said last year that his measure accomplishes "transparency through the use of XBRL and other technologies that allow for the public to have full and unfettered access to material [that] is rightfully theirs, but which before this time was often requested through [the Freedom of Information Act] and ultimately granted in a form that made it very hard to search." The bill orders agencies to ensure the public can view the standardized financial information.