Federal Spending Transparency Gets a Hearing, Not a Markup


Improved federal spending transparency was the topic of today’s Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing, which focused on the DATA Act. Senator Warner, who plans to reintroduce an updated version of the bill, explained during his turn at the witness table [PDF] that “the public deserves to know in detail how each federal dollar is spent and it’s our job to ensure that these funds are used effectively and efficiently.”

The version of the DATA Act that passed the House of Representatives in April would tackle two unsexy but important issues — data standardization and broader reporting requirements. It creates a 5 member commission to collect data on all federal spending, analyze it, and publish it online. Spending data streams will be put into a standard format and validated against each other. These two simple sounding steps could help eliminate much government waste, fraud, and abuse, and make spending oversight much easier. Senator Warner’s reboot of the DATA Act likely will address many of the same issues.

The second round of witnesses brought mixed perspectives on the DATA Act and on implementing federal spending transparency. Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General, testified about a newly-issued GAO report on federal spending transparency, which alternatively praised and criticized OMB’s efforts to comply with legislation to improve information availability. During the Q&A, Dodaro explained that it may be helpful for Congress to enact legislation declaring what spending information it wants to have available to the public, as a way of establishing priorities and direction.

OMB Controller Daniel Werfel’s testimony [PDF] focused on OMB’s efforts to improve the accuracy and availability of spending information, largely defending the administration’s record. During the Q&A, Werfel emphasized that new legislation is not necessary to implement spending transparency as the administration already has the necessary authority. While his testimony highlighted the administration’s claims of what it has accomplished, it did not engage the concerns that OMB has dragged its feet over the last 4 years, or that OMB — as an arm of the president — may have mixed incentives about releasing potentially politically damaging information. He did explain that OMB has not released a statement of administration policy on the DATA Act, but that OMB (unsurprisingly) is less than enthusiastic about shifting responsibility over standard-setting and implementation to an independent body.

Treasury Department Assistant Fiscal Secretary Richard Gregg testified [PDF] about ongoing internal efforts at Treasury to improve data quality and projects that will yield results in the future. During the Q&A, Gregg explained that legislation isn’t needed for financial transparency, leadership in the executive branch would be sufficient. This raises the question of whether sufficient leadership is being exercised.

Several additional interesting points were made during the Q&A. Controller Werfel responded to a question from Senator Coburn in which he explained that while OMB could track Treasury account symbols, it still has not compiled a list of all federal programs and probably wouldn’t be able to do so until the fall. Comptroller Dodaro praised recovery.gov as superior to usaspending.gov in terms of accuracy and searchability. And Senator Johnson argued it wouldn’t be helpful to release all the underlying data as a “data dump” to the public, a point with which we don’t agree.

The future of federal spending transparency in this Congress will likely hinge on Senator Warner’s efforts to rewrite the DATA Act in a way that balances the importance of transparency with the pushback from the administration on turf and from entities on enhanced reporting requirements. But with the sequestration looming and unending fights over spending, fixing our ability to track spending will continue to be an important issue that draws bipartisan attention.

Update: Darrell Issa, who sponsored the legislation in the House of Representatives, released the following statement:

Federal spending data, especially the data most readily available to the American people, is not accurate, not timely, not complete, and not useful. The most important lesson we can learn from the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board is that legislation with hard deadlines and tough penalties is the only way to get a petrified federal bureaucracy to end the patchwork of duplicative IT investments and make meaningful changes to deliver meaningful data.