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DATA Act passes Senate, President's desk on the horizon.

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A stack of folders, close up.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Senate passed the DATA Act earlier today. The House passed its own version last November and is likely to approve of the Senate’s changes shortly after it returns from recess later this month. The only major hurdle remaining to codifying improved access to accurate, timely and complete information about federal spending is President Obama’s pen.

For years, Sunlight has been highlighting the lack of transparency in federal spending data and pushing the DATA Act as a solution to some of the associated problems. Now, thanks to the efforts of Congress and advocacy by the Sunlight Foundation and other organizations, coupled with efforts in the executive branch, we are closer than ever to that goal.

The Sunlight Foundation has been involved with the DATA Act since before its original introduction by educating members of Congress about the importance of spending transparency, suggesting changes, monitoring its progress and testifying in support of the legislation.

The DATA Act has seen significant revision since its original introduction in 2011, but its heart has not changed. The bill would establish government-wide financial data standards, require the entire federal government to comply with the new standards and ensure that more and better data is published online.

Efforts to track and publicize federal spending information date back to at least the early 1980s when Congress passed the Consolidated Federal Funds Report Act of 1982. The following three decades saw a series of programs and systems designed to track federal spending and make it easier for the public to access and synthesize.

Unfortunately, these programs have been fragmented, poorly governed and, as Sunlight’s Clearspending project shows, inconsistent and incomplete. There has never been thoughtful, comprehensive reform, only ad hoc efforts to change outdated systems.

Clearspending compared grants data posted on USASpending.gov with other federal reporting systems and found significant problems with the consistency, completeness and timeliness of the data. The results helped draw attention to the problems with federal spending transparency systems and informed the DATA Act, which was originally introduced in 2011. The DATA Act promises to build upon lessons learned from USASpending.gov and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and improve federal spending transparency broadly.

Previous federal efforts have shown that accurate and open tracking of spending data is possible. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, did just that — saving millions of dollars along the way. The board leveraged new technologies to analyze data about money spent via the recovery act and set up Recovery.gov to give the public unprecedented access to spending information.

The success of the Recovery Board led to an executive order that set up the Government Accountability and Transparency Board, which, despite being unfunded, was tasked with developing a plan to standardize government spending data. The original version of the DATA Act, introduced at the same time as the related executive order, called for the creation of a “Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board,” which would have been responsible for publishing and monitoring spending data and overseeing a successor to USAspending.gov. Unfortunately, later versions of the DATA Act removed this provision, splitting governance authority between the Department of the Treasury and OMB.

While we are thrilled with the overall state of the DATA Act, we remain concerned about potential ramifications of spreading responsibility for implementing it across multiple agencies. Specifically, we have long been wary of OMB's commitment to federal spending transparency. At best, OMB has been slow to act and merely skeptical of ideas that would reduce its power. At worst, they have actively worked to strip the DATA Act of its teeth and horde power for themselves.

As we've argued before, it is vital that Congress use its power to enact best practices and useful standards into law to ensure real and lasting change in federal spending transparency. Congress has taken a big step by passing the DATA Act. The challenge now will be ensuring that it is implemented effectively.

Transparency is a bipartisan issue. The wide support for the DATA Act and the principles at its foundation demonstrate that. The DATA Act passed the House with only one dissenting vote and the Senate passed its version without objection. The House is expected to give its final approval to the bill when they return from recess later this month. The DATA Act is likely to land on President Obama’s desk shortly. The legislation is not perfect, but it is a major step forward in the fight for federal spending transparency and it should become law.

If you’re interested in the DATA Act or other spending transparency measures, you can follow along using Sunlight tools like Scout and OpenCongress or search for similar state level legislation on OpenStates.