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Where Does the Money Go? Soon We’ll Know Better

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that will shine a much brighter light on how the government spends taxpayer dollars.

Just exactly how each federal dollar is spent has long been more of a mystery than it ought to be. Taxpayers should have the resources necessary to hold the government accountable for its spending, but available data is severely lacking. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (S.994, DATA Act), a major step forward for federal financial transparency, will remedy many of the problems with the current system.

The bipartisan Senate bill is the end-product of negotiations with the House over their version of the DATA Act draft that passed in November. These reforms will fix many of the holes in, the federal government’s spending website, which should make it a much more reliable system. The bill also requires standardized, complete data for all federal funds made available to or spent by a government entity. This expands reporting to include all unclassified funding information and allows, for the first time, real comparisons to be made between data—currently there are no government-wide data standards. To top it off, requirements for more robust oversight will ensure greater accuracy and quality of the data presented.

An obvious benefit to improving spending transparency is that waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency within federal spending will be much easier to spot. And, more simply, it will be easier to know just how much is spent on programs taxpayers care about—and ones they don’t.

But it hasn’t been an easy path to reform. In February, a leaked draft of a proposal by OMB to weaken the bill prompted the Project On Government Oversight to join partners in a letter to President Obama. The groups urged the President to prevent his Administration from undermining the reforms proposed in the DATA Act. OMB’s unofficial re-write of the bill was contrary to the Administration’s commitment, made in the U.S. National Action Plan for open government, to increase transparency of federal spending. It also raises concerns about implementation of the bill once it becomes law.

The Senate-passed bill is expected to clear the House without a problem. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have twice co-sponsored versions of the DATA Act that passed the House, so the Senate was the real hurdle. Eventually, Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), along with the other bipartisan cosponsors including Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), managed to successfully negotiate a compromise with their colleagues in both the Senate and the House. POGO applauds these House and Senate champions of the DATA Act. Although proper implementation will be key, the bill promises to be a true game-changer for federal financial transparency.