Legislation mandating broad new transparency and accountability standards around all federal spending has garnered massive bipartisan support and looks set to be signed into law.
WASHINGTON — One of the most significant pieces of “open government” legislation in decades appears set to become law, following action by the U.S. Senate.
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the DATA Act, would mandate broad new transparency and accountability standards around all federal spending. Proponents say the bill, if passed, would be the most considerable strengthening of government openness since the Freedom of Information Act became law in the late 1960s.
The House of Representatives almost unanimously passed a similar proposal in November, but the Senate has repeatedly expressed reservations about following suit, citing funding concerns. Negotiations between the two houses of Congress over the past few months apparently ameliorated those concerns, however, and the Senate unanimously passed the DATA Act last Thursday. The House is now expected to move quickly on a vote, and President Barack Obama is likely to sign it into law.
The fact that the highly polarized Congress is set to pass any major legislation — particularly in an election year — is itself surprising. Perhaps more surprising still is that the end result is being widely lauded as strong and, even, historic.
“This is definitely the biggest such bill we’ve seen in years, and represents a significant step forward in ensuring government-wide data standards on spending,” Matt Rumsey, a policy associate with the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group here, told MintPress News.
“Fortunately, compared to earlier versions it’s very strong. Assuming it gets signed, the bill will put into law the idea that the government has to come up with spending data standards and establish and implement those across all agencies. It also pushes for the publication of this data, which hopefully will improve both the quality and quantity of information that gets published.”
The push for the DATA Act has been notably bipartisan, with the House version being sponsored by ideological opposites Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md. The last time the House voted on that version, it passed with just a single opposing vote.
On Thursday, the House Republican leadership exalted the Senate’s passage of the bill, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., stating that the DATA Act is “a huge win for open government and the innovators, developers and citizens who will benefit from it.” Congress is currently on recess, but Cantor pledged that the House would act “swiftly” to send the bill to President Obama.
Such populist support has clearly been strengthened in recent years by the crushing debates over fiscal restraint and austerity that have gripped both chambers of Congress, especially the House.
“Our taxpayers deserve to know how their federal funds are spent – dollar for dollar – and it is our obligation to share that information in a clear and direct way,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of the DATA Act’s co-sponsors in the Senate, said after the bill passed last Thursday.
Warner’s other co-sponsor, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, referenced the deficit debate even more directly.
“During a time of record $17 trillion debt,” he said, “our bipartisan bill will help identify and eliminate wasteful spending by better tracking federal spending.”
The legislation is also getting strong support from some of the country’s most influential transparency and “open government” proponents and advocacy groups. In a letter sent to Senate committee chairs in November, 25 such groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, framed the issue in terms of citizen oversight.
“Currently, data on federal spending is incomplete, inconsistent, and difficult for the public to access,” the letter stated. “All too often, the federal government fails to publish crucial spending data at all – or publishes such data in formats that are not interoperable or are otherwise difficult to use, impeding public access and analysis.”
The federal government already has a public digital clearinghouse for information related to spending. It was created by Congress in 2006 and is available online at USAspending.gov. This effort, though, has been widely criticized for providing only certain information, covering only grants and contracts without data on internal government spending, and including only summaries of most information.
Perhaps more important, the accuracy of the information on USAspending.gov is difficult to verify. When analysts have delved into and cross-compared this data, they have found that large parts have not correlated with other sources of information on government spending.
“The USAspending.gov information is only accurate on about a third of federal spending,” Hudson Hollister, who drafted the initial DATA Act language in 2009 and is now executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, a lobby group, told MintPress.
“Currently, we don’t have common, government-wide identifiers for contractors or even for specific agencies! It’s impossible to relate the different aspects of federal spending reporting to each other – nothing connects the payments requests made to the Treasury Department with the contract-writing system.”
Basic standards, he says, will allow that connection to happen.
White House responsibility
The House of Representatives had initially suggested giving the responsibility to create new reporting standards to the Treasury — a simple, direct solution that many proponents supported. In January, however, when the House-Senate talks began in earnest, the Obama administration secretly proposed vesting this and related responsibilities in the White House’s budget department, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), instead.
“The core of the DATA Act is made up of two mandates: data standardization and data publication. And the OMB-proposed amendments would have taken the bite out of both,” Hollister said.
“To their great credit, the Senate sponsors resisted those nonpublic proposals and then went public with their rejection. However, to get to final passage they had to give OMB some concessions, so OMB and Treasury are now jointly in charge of data standards.”
The White House’s stance on the DATA Act is clearly not monolithic, however. Indeed, President Obama has been a key supporter of strengthened transparency around government spending. Among other initiatives, last year he signed an executive order and accompanying policy making “open and machine-readable the new default for government information.” The new mandate was to be implemented by the end of November 2013.
Yet some have concerns about inefficiencies in the process of standards-creation that could now arise by splitting up this responsibility. Following Obama’s executive order, the OMB has had responsibility for coming up with the open government standards and for oversight of USAspending.gov, and some have suggested this setup has not worked out.
“Some of us feel they’ve ignored or pushed off that responsibility,” the Sunlight Foundation’s Rumsey said. “Once this bill passes, we’re hopeful that the administration is going to move forward on producing these standards. That’s certainly where we’ll be turning our attention.”
Negotiations between the House and Senate may also have resulted in a weaker panel to provide oversight for the implementation of the new standards. The DATA Act itself was created following the experience around the federal stimulus offered in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. The following year, Congress created an “accountability platform” — the first body of its kind — that successfully ferreted out some $100 million in fraud.
The House of Representatives had wanted to expand the accountability platform’s purview to all federal spending, but the Senate balked at the cost of doing so. As approved by the Senate, the final bill punted on the issue: compromising by giving the U.S. Treasury the option of creating such a panel within the department.
“Part of what’s important about the accountability platform is that it provides the government with an internal incentive to make sure that all of the data that it’s providing is accurate. If the government isn’t actually using this information, after all, it doesn’t really care about that accuracy,” the Data Transparency Coalition’s Hollister said.
“Now we’re hoping that the supporters of open data in President Obama’s administration will make common cause with the Treasury Department and help achieve robust data standards for spending.”
Assuming the DATA Act is signed into law, the Treasury and OMB would have a year to issue draft standards. After that, federal agencies would have another two years to start reporting their spending information in accordance with the new guidelines. It’s not yet clear whether USAspending.gov will remain the federal government’s archive for this information or whether another system will be created.