What’s Next For the DATA Act


Around 3pm today, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on passage of the DATA Act, and we hope that it will be adopted with strong bipartisan support. The bill packs quite a punch.

A new 5 member “Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission” will be established to collect data on all federal spending, analyze it, and publish it online. The website USASpending.gov, created by legislation co-sponsored by Senators Obama and Coburn, may evolve from publishing spending reports on grants and contracts to all federal spending. Several data streams — from agencies, recipients, and the Treasury Department — will be brought into one central location where they can be compared against each other. And some duplicate reporting requirements on funding recipients will end, reporting deadlines will be synchronized, and data entry minimized. Parts of the bill will take effect immediately, while other aspects will phase in over 3 years.

This top line summary necessarily omits many of the details, add-ons, and tweaks that round out the legislation and give it its teeth. For example, the reporting requirement falls on all recipients of funds, not just the primary recipient, so we can really see where federal money is going. Data standards will be established that will break down many of the information silos that have undermined efforts to systematically examine government spending, and these standards can be leveraged to ease analysis of many different aspects of government activity, not just its spending. An advisory committee will be created to make sure that the needs of the public and watchdog community are part of the process.  And the Commission will issue a report on tracking tax expenditures. (There’s also a limitation on agency spending and travel that is expected to offset the costs of implementing the transparency and accountability provisions.)

The legislation reflects and has shaped the growing understanding on Capitol Hill that technology-mediated government transparency is an area of bipartisan agreement where real progress can be made. The chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), as well as many members of the committee from both parties, in conjunction with the public interest and business communities, have worked together to create legislation that everyone can support. Even the White House has tacitly expressed its support for some of the ideas in the DATA Act when it created a commission to look at waste and fraud in federal spending.

The DATA Act, if fully implemented, could transform government spending accountability. With 3 independent data streams on how money is spent, it will become much easier to automatically detect discrepancies in spending reporting. Putting all agency data side-by-side will facilitate comparison of how well agencies are performing. This should create a virtuous cycle by which agencies compete to keep costs in line with their peers and to fully report on their spending. Of course, some agencies will find ways to game the system, but the ability to do so will be significantly constrained. And it will be much easier for watchdogs to growl when this happens. We hope that our Clearspending report and subsequent testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the $1.3 trillion in broken spending reporting in USASpending.gov will serve as a model on how to determine whether this legislation lives up to its promise.

Before the DATA Act becomes law, it must be passed by the Senate and signed by the President. Senator Warner introduced a version of the DATA Act (S. 1222) in May 2011. Warner’s bill was referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, where Senators Lieberman and Collins serve as chair and ranking member. They, along with Senators Carper and Brown, who serve on the Federal Financial Management Subcommittee, will have a strong say in the fate of the legislation, as will Senator Coburn, who serves as ranking member of another HSGAC subcommittee and was significantly responsible for the legislation that created the initial contracts and grants reporting website USASpending.gov.

Even though there is plenty of time left in the year, politics and political campaigns are sapping the will of Congress to get anything done. We can only hope that Senators will shake off the lethargy and politics to give this legislation the full and thorough consideration it deserves.