House panel unanimously endorses new government-spending oversight board

Oversight Committee's ranking member questions the new group's subpoena power and transparency advocates oppose a sunset provision.

The House Oversight Committee passed a bill Wednesday that would create a governmentwide spending oversight board and better reporting mechanisms based on programs developed to track the Obama administration's stimulus spending.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee's chairman, drew cautious support early in the markup session from ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Cummings asked Issa to work with him on modifying several key provisions before sending the bill to the House floor, though. The ranking member sought to scale back the ease with which the Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board, created by the act, would be able to issue subpoenas to compel testimony from state and local governments and other grant and contract recipients.

The FAST board would be charged with establishing governmentwide procedures for expense reporting and with pulling together those reports onto a public website modeled on, which tracks the spending of $787 billion in stimulus bill funds. and its oversight panel, the Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board, have received high marks from Republicans and Democrats alike, despite sharp partisan divisions over the stimulus bill that inspired them.

DATA also would require recipients of federal money to report details of their spending directly to the government in a standardized form -- a process first rolled out with stimulus recipients -- rather than making the granting agency gather those details.

Issa said during Wednesday's markup that the standardized reporting procedures would save money for grant and contract recipients, even though the amount of their reporting would likely increase.

"This will make software less expensive [and] more uniform," Issa said, "and provide an easier way . . . for watchdogs and government officials to look deep into databases in order to find the kind of waste fraud and abuse this committee so dearly needs [to eliminate]."

Many of the core features of DATA are mirrored in an executive order announced by Vice President Joe Biden on the same day Issa's bill was introduced.

The White House and Issa both have stressed that they don't expect the spending oversight board to become a partisan issue even as the Obama administration and House Republicans square off over government spending itself and the federal budget deficit.

Sen. Mark Warner, R-Va., has introduced companion legislation that hasn't yet had a committee hearing.

A coalition of 10 government transparency advocacy groups Tuesday sent legislators a letter endorsing DATA but also expressed concern it will sunset after seven years unless Congress reauthorizes it, potentially leaving the government without a central location for reporting on its spending.

An aide to Issa responded to those charges in an email late Wednesday, saying, "no government agency should exist in perpetuity without review" and that a five-year progress report mandated in the bill will give Congress and the president two full years to reauthorize the board as it is or to seek improvements. Committee members did not discuss the sunset provision during Wednesday's markup session.

One transparency organization, OMB Watch, said on its blog Tuesday that the seven-year sunset combined with the fact that the bill would override existing transparency legislation was a significant enough handicap that it could not support the bill.

Issa offered several amendments at the opening of Wednesday's markup session, including one that requires detailed reporting on contractor spending down through multiple layers of subcontractors. The recovery board requires reporting only from stimulus recipients and the first layer of subrecipients and critics, including Recovery Board Chairman Earl Devaney, have said that doesn't give a full enough picture of where stimulus money is going.

That deeper reporting also would give the government a better sense of whether contracts designated for minority-owned or women-owned small businesses were actually being fulfilled by minorities and women, Issa told committee members.

Cummings said he wanted to pare back the proposed FAST board's subpoena power, which the Recovery Board had but never used, and which Devaney told committee members at a hearing last week he didn't believe was necessary.

Issa said he'd work with Cummings to "get the subpoena power right" before sending the bill to the House floor. Issa had already tempered the FAST board's subpoena power in an amendment Wednesday by requiring a majority vote of the full board before any subpoenas could be issued.

Cummings also expressed concern that a requirement that the FAST board chairman be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate would lead to partisan fights and long vacancies.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., added an amendment to the bill requiring the oversight board to examine the feasibility of also reporting on federal money lost to tax breaks and loopholes rather than just to spending. The amendment was adopted without significant debate.