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Only Congressional Pressure Can Drive Real Federal Spending Transparency Reforms

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In a speech Wednesday, OMB controller Danny Werfel reportedly declared that improving the completeness and reliability of data on the federal spending transparency website USASpending is a "priority" of OMB. He reportedly indicated that OMB will issue guidance to prompt agency internal review about the reliability of their reporting.

If this news account is accurate -- and I could not reach anyone at the White House or OMB to confirm -- Mr. Werfel's remarks are welcome if they express a genuine administration commitment to address the government's systematic failure to accurately publicly report how the federal government spends money. The failure to report is of an enormous magnitude. Our recently released third annual ClearSpending analysis found more than $1.55 trillion in misreported federal spending for FY 2011... just in grants alone. (The prior two years didn't look too good, either.)

These accuracy problems shouldn't be a surprise to the administration. Sunlight testified twice before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on this topic (on March 11 and June 14, 2011) -- Mr. Werfel testified at the same March hearing (watch it here). We've also communicated our findings directly to the administration. (And others, like the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, have made similar points.)

Now, in 2013, momentum is again building behind a comprehensive approach to address the federal government's spending report problems -- embodied in the proposed federal spending transparency reform bill known as the DATA Act. This bipartisan legislation, which passed the House and was introduced in the Senate in the last Congress, addresses the longstanding issues that Mr. Werfel alluded to.

In 2012, Mr. Werfel expressed concerns about the DATA Act. However, to many observers, the criticisms looked more like an attempt to protect OMB's turf than an effort to address the reporting problems. The substance of his critiques were addressed in a blogpost by the Data Transparency Coalition, which wryly noted that "in the six years since FFATA's enactment, OMB has not tried to standardize federal spending data." Touché.

It could be that this new OMB guidance -- that no one outside government has seen or heard of until Wednesday -- is OMB's attempt to grapple with the difficult federal spending transparency issues that it has failed to comprehensively address over the last four years. But a more cynical assessment could be that the administration sees that its failure to address these issues has prompted a systematic, bipartisan transparency reform effort -- an effort that could weaken OMB's control over access to spending information -- and it will pay lip service to delay or blunt any such effort.

We hope that this recently-articulated administration desire to act on federal spending transparency has come from the realization that this is an issue where we cannot afford to wait. But it's fair to say that politics may more pressing upon OMB than policy in this matter. And if that's the case, then we should express our thanks for the assurances and move swiftly to enacting the DATA Act, because that's the driver of real reform.