DATA aims to save money by making spending easier to track

Wednesday - 4/25/2012, 12:35pm EDT

Brendan Sasso, The Hill

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The latest push for open government is the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) says the bill would allow the public to better track how agencies are using tax dollars. It's set for a vote in the House today.

"It creates a uniform reporting standard so that all the agencies when they use a particular word, say 'fuel' or 'hotel space,' that means the same thing across agencies so you can compare how much one agency his spending on something versus how much another agency is spending," said Brendan Sasso of The Hill newspaper. "It also applies to any awards the government gives out, so contracts or grants."

Sasso joined The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Wednesday to discuss DATA.

The bill creates a new panel similar to the Recovery Board called the Financial Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission (FASTC). The commission would organize all of the spending data online to make it easier for the public to track agency spending.

The bipartisan bill has already passed the House oversight committee on a voice vote, and it's expected to pass the House today. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)

"My understanding is that the Sentate is just sort of waiting for the House to move," Sasso said. "After the vote today, the chances of it moving in the Senate, I think, are a lot higher."

Agencies and groups that contract with the government already deal with a number of reporting requirements. If passed, the new law would introduce uniform standards to the contracting process.

"When one agency is reporting something, you might not be able to compare that to what another agency is doing," Sasso said. "There are reporting standards, but it's hard to compare across different agencies what one word means here, if it it means the same thing over there."

DATA would also update the information on the government's current website dedicated to tracking federal spending, USASpending.gov, so the public would be able to continue using that site.

According to Sasso, the National Governors Association has come out in opposition to the bill.

"They put out a statement the other day," he said. "They're calling it an unfunded mandate, because it would require these new reporting standards and it doesn't provide any new funding for states. When they're applying for grants, they have to do these new reporting standards and there's nothing to pay for that."

Supporters of the bill, such as Issa, say that DATA would save money by making it easier to track spending and detect overspending by an agency.

"With this GSA scandal, it wouldn't necessarily prevented that, but it might've saved some time once the flags went up that people were spending too much money on this conference," Sasso said. "It still took investigators a long time to really dig in and look at all these numbers, whereas if this law had been in place, it would've been a lot easier to go to this online database and it would've been a lot easier to track all of this spending."

To pay for the bill, Congress is cutting back the travel expenses of federal agencies. "Their total travel budgets can only be 80 percent of what they were in 2010," Sasso said. "That's the way they're paying for these new reporting requirements that are in the bill."