Revenue & Spending
Next Steps for Spending Transparency Revealed in Senate Hearing
In a hearing entitled "Show Me the Money: Improving the Transparency of Federal Spending," the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asked witnesses from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Treasury Department, and a current senator where efforts on spending transparency in the administration stand.
Richard L. Gregg, the Treasury Department's Fiscal Assistant Secretary, announced a major advancement in federal spending transparency: starting in 2013, the public will be able to see Treasury data on agency expenses and payments to recipients of federal contracts, grants, and loans. This data is essentially the entries from the nation's checkbook. Crucially, this payment data will be able to be linked to other government data, including USAspending.gov. And, according to Gregg, it will "enable the public to follow a payment through the complete spending cycle – from appropriations to the disbursements of grants, contracts, and administrative spending." Unlike USAspending.gov, which shows what agencies said they had committed to spending, Treasury payment data is information on funds that were actually paid out. It is a critical element of federal spending transparency, and if the system announced by Gregg comes online as described, the public will have a powerful new tool to track federal spending.
Despite Gregg's testimony about a new transparency system, the committee expressed doubts about the administration's ability to make comprehensive, high-quality spending data available to the public. Senators and witnesses confirmed that USAspending.gov has not delivered what its creators envisioned – a system to make accurate and timely federal spending data available to the public in a user-friendly way. In his opening remarks, Committee Chair Joe Lieberman (I-CT), though praising the overall goals of the legislation that created USAspending.gov (the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA)), said that six years after passage, the USAspending.gov website "has not achieved Congress' goals." Lieberman cited several problems with the website, including its less-than user friendly interface, the inability to connect data on the site with other federal datasets, and individual contractors appearing under different names.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recalled that when Recovery.gov was created, lessons from that transparency effort were supposed to be used to improve USAspending.gov. According to Coburn, "[t]hat hadn't happened," and OMB directions to federal agencies stemming from those lessons have not been enforced. Coburn asked witness Danny Werfel, Controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management, which agencies were doing well and which were not complying with getting timely, accurate data into USAspending.gov. Werfel responded that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was an example of an agency that "takes its responsibilities to produce reliable information most seriously in terms of developing best practices." Seventy-five percent of that agency's award data is 95 percent reconciled. Werfel conceded that, while that is not a "great score," USDA has a mechanism to measure its data quality.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), appearing as a witness, underscored the importance of having timely, accurate, and comprehensive spending data. He testified that a lack of transparency feeds the public's mistrust and cynicism in government and that addressing the nation's fiscal challenges is "undermined" without adequate transparency. Gene Dodaro, head of the GAO, insisted that it was "pivotal" that a "premium be placed on the quality and the reliability" of the spending data because without those things, the data won't be useful to the public or policymakers.
Frustrated by the lack of improvement in data quality on USAspending.gov since the GAO reported on it in 2010, the committee appears to be looking to legislative fixes. In April, the House passed the DATA Act, which would greatly enhance federal spending transparency, bring new datasets online, and help standardize reporting across the government. Werfel, however, denied that legislation is necessary, believing that the administration has sufficient ability and authority to significantly improve federal spending transparency. Referring to the DATA Act, he said that comprehensive revision to spending transparency laws would be "replowing the Earth" and could actually hinder transparency, as ongoing efforts directed at meeting existing laws would have to be diverted.
Rather than lacking a legislative mandate to make spending transparency more robust, OMB, according to Werfel, lacks the resources it needs to fulfill existing requirements. Explaining why USAspending.gov has not advanced as quickly as some committee members hoped, Werfel said that lessons learned from Recovery.gov had not been transferred to USAspending.gov in "large measure because of budget issues." Indeed, Dodaro noted that Recovery.gov was successful because, in addition to dedicated leadership, it received sufficient funding. Congress, however, has made recent cuts in the Electronic Government fund, which provides the funding for USAspending.gov, trimming the fund down from $34 million in FY 2010 to $12.4 million this year.
Coburn, anxious to see to more progress in improving data quality, told Werfel, "You need some help from Congress." Concurring, Dorado stated, "Legislation is absolutely essential here going forward." Both the senators and Werfel expressed concerns about the House-passed version of the DATA Act, including some about the establishment of a new government entity to manage federal spending transparency. Indeed, as Warner remarked, his opinion on the DATA Act has "evolved" since he introduced the bill in the Senate last year, and he now believes that another agency is unnecessary. Werfel, representing the Obama administration's stance, is concerned that the proposed data transparency commission would not have a mechanism to consider objections from OMB or federal agencies. Coburn said that a revised DATA Act should make "everything we're doing now consolidated, put together, and responsive, available, and easy for the American people to know."
Though the Obama administration and the committee are separated in their opinions of how to improve federal spending transparency, both recognize the critical importance of it and are working to build upon the successes of USAspending.gov and Recovery.gov.