Report: White House seeks to defang transparency bill

The chief Senate supporter of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act says the proposed changes are unacceptable, and he is backed by open-government advocates.

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According to a leaked draft of proposed revisions to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, the Office of Management and Budget is seeking to remove the open-government legislation's dedicated funding stream and edit language calling for standardized governmentwide data elements for reporting federal spending.

The proposed revisions are unacceptable to many of the bill's key supporters.

The legislation was designed to require government agencies to publish highly detailed information on grants, contracts and payments as they are made via the USASpending.gov website. The House passed the bill, and a revised version was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). That measure was approved by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, but it has not seen floor action.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would give the Treasury Department authority over USASpending.gov and control of the data standards. Alterations by the Obama administration would move both oversight roles to OMB.

"The administration believes data transparency is a critical element to good government, and we share the goal of advancing transparency and accountability of federal spending," OMB spokesperson Frank Benenati told FCW in an emailed statement. " We will continue to work with Congress and other stakeholders to identify the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars to accomplish this goal." Part of OMB's role in the legislative process is to seek comments from agencies on current bills that affect their operations. According to news reports, agencies are expected to turn in their responses by the end of the week.

Warner said he was unhappy with the proposed changes. "The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act. DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable," Warner said in a statement. "We look forward to passing the DATA Act, which had near universal support in its House passage and passed unanimously out of its Senate committee. I will not back down from a bill that holds the government accountable and provides taxpayers the transparency they deserve."

The original legislation appealed to open-government activists because it would establish integrated data standards using machine-readable languages to allow developers to build applications that would monitor federal spending. In a Jan. 29 blog post, the Sunlight Foundation said it would pull support for the bill if it included OMB's changes.

"The White House has never made an official statement on the DATA Act, but the legislation's goals appear to be clearly aligned with the Obama administration's open-government priorities, including the open data executive order," wrote Matthew Rumsey, a Sunlight Foundation policy associate. "The stance taken by OMB in the leaked document does not reflect the administration's stated values, but it does reflect OMB's shoddy history of commitment to quality spending data."

One of the bill's legislative architects, Hudson Hollister, also said he would not support the bill if OMB's revisions are incorporated. Hollister is executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition and helped write the original measure as a staffer for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"OMB's revisions to the data standards section of the DATA Act seem designed to ensure that nobody will develop data standards for federal spending, nobody will use them, and nothing will change," Hollister wrote in a blog post.

NOTE: This article was updated on Jan. 29 to incorporate OMB's comments.

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