In a sign that transparency may lie in the eye of the beholder, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved an array of bills to improve government access and efficiency at the same time majority Republicans blocked Democratic demands to subpoena numerous agencies on Trump administration-related controversies.
The four major bills, all approved by voice vote, address the government’s reliance on DUNS as identifiers for applicants for grants, long-sought subpoena power for inspectors general, protection of citizen privacy when completing agencies’ electronic release forms, and barriers to public access to agency reports.
But before deliberations on the good-government bills came the political drama. Substitute Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., was confronted by Democrats angry that Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., for months had declined to sign on to their 19 subpoenas to a half-dozen agencies.
As spelled out in earlier letters, the topics of the requests for subpoenaed documents touch on President Trump’s business holdings; his ban on travelers from primarily Muslim countries; the Office of Management and Budget’s shielding of agency reorganization plans from public view; the Homeland Security Department’s responses to hurricanes and files on Russian attacks on states during the 2016 election; White House adviser Jared Kushner’s withheld emails; and various security clearance suspensions, including those related to fired Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“What are House Republicans afraid we will find?” asked Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “Have they lost their subpoena pen? Our committee has a responsibility to the American people to conduct oversight of the executive branch. Instead, the majority has become the administration’s top protector and leading obstructionist.”
After Connolly requested that the committee allow a vote to overrule Chairman Gowdy’s blocking of the subpoenas, Meadows calmly ruled his request “out of order.” Connolly, he said, had been “recognized for an opening statement” but the topic of the subpoenas was “not on the agenda.”
Connolly, who was joined during the business meeting by other Democrats demanding subpoenas, promised that Republicans had “been put on notice” that this is “not an issue that will go away.”
Generating the most debate at the meeting was the Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency (GREAT) Act (H.R. 4887), introduced last week and revised via amendment at Tuesday’s meeting by Reps. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif. Supported by many in the data transparency community as a key government modernization tool, it would require OMB and a partner agency to create data standards for federal grants to reduce reporting burdens on grant recipients and improve oversight. (Excluded would be personally identifiable information, information not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and information exempted by the OMB director on a case-by-case basis.)
“By making the collected data open and searchable, small businesses will no longer be forced to spend meaningful man-hours on filling out duplicative paperwork and instead will be empowered to focus on their core objectives,” Foxx said earlier about the bill. She added that the bill would end the “monopolistic practice” of having all agencies continue to rely on the exclusive proprietary system of Dun and Bradstreet (DUNS number) as the applicant identifier. “The central question is, ‘Who owns the government data?’ ” she said. “We should be tearing down barriers to data and creating more transparency.”
Gomez added that he would like to expand the bill to apply to contractors but, even with Foxx’s endorsement, agreed to withdraw that plan for further analysis.
Resistance, however, came from Connolly and Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., who expressed concerns that ending universal use of DUNS numbers would raise costs for applicants who might have to register with multiple systems. Connolly said that while he supports the GREAT Act “in spirit,” the switch from DUNS should be done only “after careful consideration.” The panel adopted, by voice vote, his amendment to require OMB and the Health and Human Services Department to make the decision.
Hudson Hollister, the executive director of the Data Coalition, which has long pushed for replacing DUNS numbers, said in an email to Government Executive after Tuesday’s hearing, “Along with the Sunlight Foundation and other transparency groups, we support nonproprietary identifiers, and we look forward to advocating that position with OMB."
Dun and Bradstreet, in a statement to Government Executive, welcomed the Connolly amendment and future efforts at technological innovations. "This was an important step to ensure that robust private sector innovation can be evaluated when the government takes on the important task of increasing transparency and providing efficiencies," said its government affairs head Allison Schwartz. "Dun & Bradstreet is proud to be a part of the current process, supporting data-driven award management decision-making, transparency and accountability in the award management system at no cost to the awardee. Taxpayers can also freely access federal spending information through GSA’s Integrated Award Environment Systems."
Also approved by voice vote was a bill (H.R. 4917) sponsored by Russell, long sought by the inspector general community, to expand the watchdogs’ powers to subpoena contractors, grant recipients and federal employees who have retired to compel testimony during investigations.
In a bipartisan voice vote, the panel backed the Creating Advanced Streamlined Electronic Services (CASES) for Constituents Act (H.R. 3076), sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves, R-La. It would ease the ability of congressional offices to conduct casework involving Privacy Act-protected information by requiring federal agencies to accept electronic privacy release forms under OMB guidance.
Finally, the panel also approved by voice vote the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act sponsored by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. It would require the Government Publishing Office to establish and maintain a website from which the public can access electronic copies of all congressionally mandated reports submitted to Congress by federal agencies.