House Oversight Committee Moves Troublesome DATA Act to Floor
by Craig Jennings, 6/22/2011
This morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform unanimously approved the DATA Act (PDF). And that's a problem, because now it's headed to the House floor with a number of provisions we have serious concerns about.
The DATA Act is fatally flawed in several ways, and we noted the two most problematic provisions in the bill when we stated our opposition to it: that all the measures in the bill are slated to sunset in seven years and that it would repeal FFATA, the law that created USAspending.gov.
To be clear, OMB Watch is supportive of the majority of bill's provisions. It would essentially extend and improve Recovery Act-style recipient reporting and establish an independent agency modeled after the highly effective Recovery Board to oversee federal spending transparency. Most importantly, it would allow us to see far down the sub-contracting chain to see the ultimate recipients of federal funds.
But by repealing FFATA, the bill would actually take spending transparency a few steps back, because FFATA contains a number of data elements that are required to be reported that the DATA Act does not. And unless Congress acts to reauthorize the bill in 2018, the spending information that appears on USAspending.gov and all the other spending transparency created by the DATA Act will disappear. We shouldn't have to be reconsidering whether spending transparency is necessary every seven years or worried that a polarized Congress finding itself in a legislative stalemate will fail to agree on approving time-sensitive legislation.
That transparency advocates on the Oversight Committee -- most notably Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) -- voted to approve such a dangerous proposition is confounding. Issa noted his years-long effort to pass this bill, and yet included a countdown timer for the bill's life. In his opening statement, Cummings explicitly noted his concerns about the sunset provision and the repeal of FFATA along with several other issues he sees in the bill, and yet still agreed to go along with the rest of the committee in moving this bill to a full House vote.
Besides the repeal of FFATA and the sunsetting of the Act itself, there are many other issues where the bill needs improvements. It includes a broad, vague power for the Board to exempt recipients of federal funds from reporting, and a nomination process for the Board's chair that could leave the agency leaderless for years. Based on our experience of helping write FFATA and our experience working with OMB implementing the law, there are other technical changes we think essential. For example, the DATA Act appropriately targets improving data quality. But its solution will not result on better data, just more of it. To get an accurate picture of federal outlays, it is important to obtain data from the government check writer, the Treasury Department.
I would like to point out that the markup session was not for naught. A pair of amendments by Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) that were added to the bill are welcomed additions. Quigley's amendment would require the board created by the act to determine the feasibility of including tax expenditures on the new spending transparency website. Speier's would require that the board to emphasize finding waste, fraud, and abuse in sole-sourced federal contracts.
A companion version of the DATA Act was introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) but without the sunset provision. Yet it still contains the FFATA repeal. Let's hope the Senate spends some time deliberating the merits of these and other issues before that chamber votes on the DATA Act.