Push for more federal data transparency gaining momentum on Capitol Hill

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 11:50am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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House lawmakers will take another crack at improving federal data transparency laws in the next few months.

Republican leaders are promising to get the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act a vote on the House floor and are more optimistic than ever that the bill has the necessary support to become law.

House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Tuesday at the Data Transparency 2013 conference sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition, that there have been some improvements to the bill, and once the Congressional Budget Office scores the bill for how much it would cost to implement, the leadership will schedule it for a vote accordingly.

This is the second time the House will consider the DATA Act.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of Oversight and Government Reform Committee, introduced the revised DATA Act in May.

Building on Recovery.gov

The bill would require agencies to standardize and make public online federal procurement, assistance and financial-management data.

The goal of the bill is to build on the transparency and success of the Recovery Act and Recovery.gov. To that end, the bill requires the Recovery Board to run a pilot program for recipients of federal funds to report back to the government how they spend the money as a way to improve the accuracy and to develop recommendations for reducing reporting requirements.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) also offered a companion bill.

Issa introduced a similar bill in 2011, which passed the House, but received little support in the Senate or from the White House.

Among the problems with the first bill, experts say, was the requirement to report data that agencies already were reporting, and the creation of a commission to oversee the transparency effort.

Issa stripped much of the controversial provisions out, and now there seems to be growing support for the bill, which is more like a follow-on to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) of 2006, which then Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) sponsored.

Neither the George W. Bush nor the Obama administrations fully implemented the requirements of FFATA, and that has been one of the reasons for the push for the DATA Act.

Changing needs for the bill

Issa said leadership support from Cantor and a Senate companion bill are only minor reasons why the DATA Act has a better chance today than two years ago of becoming law.

"During the intervening two years, we experienced sequestration," he said at the conference. "So now a bill on paper scores in the $100 million or less cost is suddenly a part of sequestration for a different reason: Organizing and structuring data will save countless hundreds of millions of dollars in the short run, and in the long run will save billions of dollars not including the benefits of access to information, not including the benefits of access to information, the possibility that in fact if more people know more in the bidding process, we will get more products for less, the fact that by definition the failures and inaccuracies when databases try to speak to each other would be eliminated. All of the things that we wrote the DATA Act for are less important in a sequestration world than the question of knowing your $81 billion worth of IT will not increase, but in fact go down."

Another reason for optimism about the bill is growing support from the White House.

Issa said the fact that Vice President Joe Biden has said publicly he supports the DATA Act is a major change.

"I think that one of the challenges was getting the administration to fully understand what we were trying to achieve," Issa said. "As you can imagine, Danny Werfel in his next job very quickly decided that it wasn't such a bad idea and he should've been supportive. One of the challenges, and I think back to my back-and-forth when he was at OMB with Danny, he thought he could handle it himself. He came. He stayed. He left. It didn't get handled. Sometimes that's the best lesson. When you say, 'We can do it,' and then you look back and say, 'I thought I could do it, but it didn't happen,' you begin to appreciate why legislative action can help."

Danny Werfel is the former Office of Management and Budget controller and acting deputy director for management. He now is the acting IRS commissioner.

Werfel was the main administration voice expressing opposition against the initial DATA Act.