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OMB's DATA Act power grab

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A set of scales. The left tray is hanging lower than the right tray.
Photo by Flickr user winnifredxoxo

Yesterday, Federal News Radio reported on a leaked document that indicates the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) opposes key portions of the DATA Act. In its current form, the act would standardize spending data across the federal government and ensure timely public access to accurate information.

The document shows OMB's proposed edits to the Senate version of the DATA Act, edits which would severely weaken the bill's data standardization provisions, strip it of its funding mechanism and consolidate power in OMB at the expense of the Treasury and other executive branch offices that have shown a willingness to improve federal spending data.

OMB's version of the DATA Act is not a bill that the Sunlight Foundation can support. If OMB's suggestions are ultimately added to the legislation, we will join our friends at the Data Transparency Coalition and withdraw our support of the DATA Act.

The White House has never made an official statement on the DATA Act, but the legislation's goals appear to be clearly aligned with the Obama administration's open government priorities, including the open data executive order. The stance taken by OMB in the leaked document does not reflect the administration's stated values, but it does reflect OMB's shoddy history of commitment to quality spending data.

While OMB has continually dragged its feet on efforts to improve the state of federal spending data, other offices in the executive branch have been making progress towards that goal and showing a willingness to vigorously implement the DATA Act if it is passed. The Department of the Treasury, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and the Government Accountability and Transparency Board have all shown that it is possible, and useful, to track federal spending in a standardized and transparent manner. The current version of the DATA Act recognizes this by placing most of the responsibility for implementing it in the Department of the Treasury.

This appears to be too much for OMB, despite bipartisan support for the DATA Act in Congress and recent confirmation from the GAO that efforts to responsibly track federal spending via the Recovery Act were well worth it. OMB is now demanding that they be given responsibility to implement a much weakened version of the DATA Act — responsibility that they have previously shown little interest in taking.

The DATA Act, which Sunlight has supported since it was originally introduced close to three years ago, has been gaining momentum in Congress over the past year. It was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in early November and a slightly different version passed the House on an overwhelming and bipartisan vote a week later. It is vital that Congress not give in to OMB's attempted power grab, but instead pass a strong version of the DATA Act that provides supporters of spending transparency within the Federal government the best possible chance to succeed.

We are pleased to see that Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the lead Senate sponsor of the DATA Act, released the following statement, affirming his commitment to passing the bill as it exists: "The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act. DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable. We look forward to passing the DATA Act, which had near universal support in its House passage and passed unanimously out of its Senate committee. I will not back down from a bill that holds the government accountable and provides taxpayers the transparency they deserve."