Policy: Budgets & Deficits

DATA Act would shine new sunlight on federal spending

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Beltway Confidential,Congress,Mark Tapscott,Budgets and Deficits,Spending,Transparency

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are in the headlines this week as a result of today's hearing on the IRS scandal, but the panel did something else significant on May 10 that could prove far more significant in the long run.

That's the day the committee made public a discussion draft of its proposed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. The bill was written on a bipartisan basis by the committee as part of its continuing effort to make it easier for Americans to get detailed information on how the government is spending tax dollars.

Congress made a great start by passing the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which was signed by President George W. Bush. The principle sponsors of the FFATA were Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL.

The bill mandated establishment of a "google-like" Internet web site - known today at USASpending.gov - that would put most federal spending within a few mouse clicks for citizens.

But there were problems from the start for USASpending.gov, problems the DATA Act is meant to address. According to the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), the provisions of the discussion draft do so in some important respects but not others.

What the proposal would do, CEG explains, are the following:

* Include information about budget authority, obligations, and outlays on the agency, agency component, appropriations account, program, and object class levels (e.g. the nature of the obligation, such as personnel compensation, contracts, acquisition of capital assets, or grants), as well as any transferring of funds and unobligated funding;

* Combine transaction-level obligation information (e.g. contracts signed, grants awarded, loans made) with outlays (the checks that are actually cut);

* Assign universal unique identifiers to contract and grant awards;

* Establish government-wide data standards;

* Work to reduce improper payments;

* Extend the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board's life and have it review a data stream from USAspending.gov for completeness, timeliness, quality, and accuracy and submit a report every two years, as well examine data for indicators of fraud;

* Create a pilot program with select major contractors and grant recipients to examine the feasibility of widespread recipient reporting of federal funds received, similar to what occurred under the Recovery Act; and

* Transfer responsibility for running USAspending.gov from OMB to the Treasury Department.

That's quite a list of improvements but CEG points to a handful of problems that will remain if the measure is approved by Congress and signed into law by the president as it presently stands:

* Transaction-level information for certain types of spending would still not be available for things like Medicare. For instance, individual Medicare payments to doctors would not be included.

* Even though they represent roughly $1 trillion in impacts to the government's bottom line each year, tax expenditures (i.e., exemptions and subsidies) are another area of "spending" that wouldn't be part of USAspending.gov.

* Contractor and grantee performance information would not be included in USAspending.gov.

* The actual contracts and supporting documents, such as statements of work, will also not be available.

More information and analysis on the proposal's positives and negatives are available on CEG's web site.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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