Lawmaker seeks to soften budget blow to transparency websites

Government transparency websites were badly wounded in the battle over the 2011 federal budget, but it looks like at least some will survive.

Spending for sites such as USASpending.gov, Data.gov and the IT Dashboard was cut from $34 million to $8 million, but there are signs that a fiscal transfusion from other sources might be arranged.

The possibility was broached by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"We will find a way, and this is a personal pledge, to make sure they are not shut down," Issa said during a panel discussion about transparency sites days after Congress agreed to cut federal spending by $39 billion for 2011.

Issa, a prodigious budget cutter in his own right, maintained the recent budget compromise "does not cut enough." Yet he said the cutbacks are too deep when it comes to websites that give citizens access to information about government spending.

And he suggested a solution: "The specific funding goes away, but reprogramming authority would still be available. Our view is on a case-by-case basis we will be able to keep them open," Issa said in a statement circulated by his staff.

Open government advocates are heartened by Issa's approach.

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, views Issa's statement as a pledge "to shift funds around to try to keep many sites alive." Schuman said others on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., also have expressed their support for transparency websites.

USASpending.gov and Performance.gov were created by legislation, and likely will continue to receive at least some funding, Schuman said. As for the others, "it's going to be very hard to squeeze $34 million worth of programs into less than $8 million," he said, noting the basic cost to keep them operating might cost $15 million to $20 million.

Issa might seem an unlikely champion for what's billed as one of the Obama administration's signature initiatives. He once called the administration "one of the most corrupt" and has vowed to use his committee chairmanship to "literally close agencies or subagencies or programs" to cut federal spending.

But Issa's support for websites that provide insight into government activity is in character, according to Schuman.

"He's chairman of the Congressional Transparency Caucus, so it's not surprising he has an interest," Schuman said. "He has spoken about transparency before, and he seems to be an advocate."

In an October 2010 op-ed in The Washington Examiner, Issa called for more effective use of information technology to "make it possible for Americans to track federal spending, regulation and legislation. Better transparency will enable voters, media and watchdog groups to hold the bureaucracy accountable," he wrote.

Issa said federal agencies should adopt "consistent, compatible electronic data formats" to make it easier for the public to search, sort and download financial, regulatory and legislative information.

Then "anyone with Web access could scrutinize the federal budget, second-guess federal regulators, or navigate proposed laws and the U.S. Code with ease," he wrote.

"Dozens of separate federal agencies use incompatible software systems and inconsistent accounting methods to report their financial results," making it impossible for the federal government to track its own finances, let alone to enable the public to track them, he said.

"If regulators imposed consistent data formats for regulatory information, then watchdogs, bloggers and the public could perform their own oversight, illuminating which regulatory systems are well-designed and which are too complex," Issa wrote.

"Transparency through technology presents a real opportunity to begin controlling spending, simplifying the bureaucracy and regaining the confidence of the American people," he added.

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