By Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)
Transparency is critical to our democracy, especially for a federal government that spent about $3.5 trillion last year. Policymakers and taxpayers should be able to quickly answer some basic questions about federal spending, like how much did we spend, and who received our money? Determining this very basic information can take countless hours of work, if it is able to be determined at all. No wonder public trust in government is at an all-time low—we spend taxpayer dollars, but we fail to take sufficient steps to report back how it was spent.
But hopefully, those days are almost over. The four of us have teamed up on an important bipartisan bill that modernizes the way the federal government collects and presents spending information. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, will shed additional light on the federal government’s finances and leverage modern technology to give the taxpayers the transparency over federal spending they deserve.
The DATA Act will ensure that the information collected by the budget analysts, accountants, and grant and contract officers is combined, reconciled, and presented in an easy-to-use way. Here is how it will work.
First, our legislation will expand the USAspending.gov site to include spending data for all federal funds—by appropriation, federal agency, program, and function. Currently, it covers only grants, contracts and other federal awards. This feature is important because there is currently no place to find and compare all government spending. The information also will be made available in downloadable, easily-accessible format.
Second, the DATA Act will set government-wide financial data standards. Currently, there are no consistent standards, which makes much of the data on USAspending.gov confusing and unreliable. Without consistent data standards, taxpayers and policymakers can’t compare apples to apples.
Third, the DATA Act will reduce reporting costs for entities that are awarded taxpayer dollars. The current reporting systems are duplicative and frustrating. States and organizations like universities are awarded hundreds of different grants from dozens of federal agencies each year. Oftentimes, they must file financial reports on an annual, quarterly, and monthly basis to each of those agencies on each of those grants. The current system is fractured; the state or university may be required to maintain completely different systems to file what is ultimately a very similar report. If this reporting were streamlined, our institutes of higher education and our state and local governments could direct more funding to programs and less to overhead costs.
Finally, the DATA Act will make other efforts to enhance transparency-through-technology, like the President’s Open Data Policy and the modernization of the Government Performance and Results Act, truly useful. We can post performance metrics for every federal program on Performance.gov., and we can post all data sets collected by every agency on Data.gov, but without information about where taxpayer resources are going, there is no context for policymakers and the American people to make informed decisions.
We are proud that the DATA Act has passed the House with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote and out of committee in the Senate unanimously. We will continue urging our colleagues in the Senate to pass this important bipartisan legislation as soon as possible to provide the transparency our taxpayers deserve.