GSA scandal lends urgency to data transparency measure

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., supports the bill. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., supports the bill. Michael Conroy/AP

Six months after a measure that would open up agency spending to greater public scrutiny online came out of committee, House lawmakers and an array of open-government advocates are gearing up for a Wednesday vote.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 2146) was introduced in June 2011 by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. It would impose a universal reporting requirement for recipients of federal grants, loans and contracts, while requiring all agencies to use the same formats to publicly share their internal and external obligations and expenditures.

Incorporating lessons on data centralization from the 2009 Recovery Act, the bill would mandate common data identifiers and electronic reporting and impose a $250,000 fine on recipients of federal funds who fail to provide accurate data to agencies. The effort would be led by a new Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on April 19 announced that the bill would be considered under suspension of the rules on April 25. Because it is being brought to the floor under suspension of the rules, it will require a two-thirds majority to pass. “This is an important step in our continuing effort to make government more accountable, accessible and transparent, especially when it comes to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars," Cantor said on the House floor.

The timing also has been influenced by the unfolding spending scandal at the General Services Administration, whose governmentwide acquisition procedures would be affected by the bill. "American taxpayers deserve to be able to access information about how their money is being spent,” Issa said. “Regardless of where one falls on the ideological spectrum, there is no question that the infrastructure and reporting standards needed to ‘follow-the-money’ have been lacking. The GSA travel and conference spending scandal is a perfect case study.”

After the vote was scheduled, the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight launched an appeal to supporters and fellow watchdogs of government spending to write to their House member to urge passage. The Sunlight Foundation has assembled 23 like-minded organizations to sign a letter with a similar message.

The bill cleared the oversight panel in October after seven hearings and some changes that were sufficient to attract 14 House co-sponsors, including committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and three other House Democrats: Carolyn Maloney of New York, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Brad Sherman of California.

But a companion bill in the Senate (S. 1222) introduced by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has not attracted any co-sponsors and has been idle in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“I’m pleased that the House is planning on bringing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act to the floor this week for a vote,” Warner said in an email to Government Executive. “This legislation has the potential to create a new era of transparency for the federal government, and I will be pushing for the Senate to consider this legislation soon. In light of the recent conference scandal at the General Services Administration, this legislation is even more important. It will help ensure that Congress has better information regarding federal spending to help prevent future waste, fraud or abuse.”

Also backing the bill is a set of information technology companies called the Data Transparency Coalition. The group’s executive director, Hudson Hollister, until recently a Republican counsel on the House oversight panel, told Government Executive that “prospects are very good for passage in the House, and there is an unprecedented level of support from the transparency community.” But he acknowledged the bill has not moved far in the Senate, and noted meetings between Senate and House staff have revealed “some concerns about costs and the possibility of achieving some standardization without the need for legislation” on technological mandates, which, he added, can be counterproductive.

Another key backer of the bill is Earl Devaney, the longtime inspector general and Recovery Board chairman who recently retired and is now advising Reznick Government. He wrote in his final Chairman’s Corner blog in December that “the reform bill faces an uphill battle, primarily because some in the bureaucracy prefer the status quo -- a hodgepodge of data collection and display sites that, frankly, makes no sense at all unless you believe your government should confuse you.”

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation who coordinated the letter, said, “we haven’t heard any agency resistance” and don’t expect a lot of federal managers to speak out against such new transparency efforts, given the recent revelations about GSA. The centralized spending reports, he added, would be useful for inspectors general as well as for “agency budget officers in keeping track of the spending in the first place.”

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