DATA Act Comes to House Floor

During this period of political gridlock, it's rare to find a bipartisan legislative initiative that we can enthusiastically support. But tomorrow, the House of Representatives will vote on just such a bill, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). The DATA Act would greatly enhance federal spending transparency, bringing new datasets online and helping standardize reporting across the government.

Federal spending transparency is a relatively new field, with Congress passing the first law mandating online, public access to spending data in 2006. This law, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA), created the bedrock of current federal spending transparency, This site, which collects agency data on contracts, grants, and loans, is used by thousands of people every day, including national and local journalists, government officials at every level, and concerned citizens. But is hampered by limited scope and shaky funding.

The DATA Act creates a new commission, the Federal Accountability and Transparency (FAST) Commission, to oversee federal spending transparency. The FAST Commission would set the standards for several new reporting systems. The DATA Act specifically calls for so-called "ultimate recipient reporting," which requires every recipient to report on their use of funds, no matter how many times a federal award is subcontracted (currently, both FFATA and the Recovery Act stop at the second-tier recipient). The commission would also have $51 million in dedicated funding, each year, giving it the funds it would need to succeed.

These changes would allow the public to have a full sense of how their tax dollars are being used. With ultimate recipient reporting, users can follow the money all the way down the chain. For instance, say a local school district receives a grant from the federal government to fix up a neighborhood school. Currently, if a local contractor receives an award to do the work, it will show up in as a subrecipient. But if that contractor then subcontracts the work out to, say, a large multinational corporation, the government database wouldn't show that, since we've exhausted the "tiers" in the current law. Ultimate recipient reporting, however, would show every recipient, every subcontractor, who receives more than $100,000 in federal awards.

The FAST Commission would have the additional responsibility of setting up a totally new dataset from the Treasury Department. Since the Treasury is the agency actually signing the checks for all federal contracts and grants, its spending data has long been seen as the mythical gold standard for spending information. But opening up these books has been difficult, and the DATA Act forces Treasury to work with the FAST Commission to make this information publicly available.

By overseeing all of these reporting systems, the commission would be able to take a more big-picture view of spending transparency. Currently, recipients of federal awards often face several reporting requirements. In addition to whatever reporting requirements the awarding agency might have, FFATA might require the recipients to report their activities to, as well. But the commission would have several ways of trying to reduce this reporting duplication, chiefly by setting data standards and pre-populating data fields. This means that recipients of federal dollars should only have to report once, in one place, to satisfy several requirements.

The DATA Act also calls for all this information to be as open and accessible as possible, allowing anyone to use and remix it however they want. Additionally, the commission would regularly produce a slew of reports for Congress and the public. These would include one on the benefits of spending transparency, and another on the feasibility of publishing data on tax expenditures, the more than $1 trillion worth of spending with no transparency whatsoever.

Loyal OMB Watch followers may remember that we originally were opposed to the DATA Act. However, since the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee first voted on the bill, a number of changes have been made. It no longer repeals FFATA, the landmark transparency law. And the new version also has a less restrictive sunset so that only the FAST Commission is up for another vote in seven years, not the entire bill and the new reporting requirements. While there are other, small changes, these two are enough to convince us to support the new version of the bill.

The version of the DATA Act coming to the House floor tomorrow afternoon enjoys wide support, both inside and outside government. The bill passed unanimously through the House Oversight Committee last year, and both Democrats and Republicans vocally support the bill. Yesterday, 23 good government groups, including OMB Watch, called on Congress to pass the DATA Act.

Now we're asking for your help. Please let your representative know you support transparency, too. Write your representative and urge him or her to pass the DATA Act to make government spending more open to citizen oversight!

UPDATE (April 25, 2012): The DATA Act passed the House by an overwhelming voice vote this afternoon.

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