Lawmakers turn to IT for grant accountability

Bill proposes a database to provide transparency in the grant-making process

Information on H.R. 5060

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Several House leaders want to create a public database to track federal grants and help curb any questionable practices surrounding the federal grant process. Although many agencies already make such information available, some experts familiar with the grant-making process say a consolidated Web site could improve accountability.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) introduced legislation March 30 that would require agencies to post specific information about every federal grant award. The bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to work with the General Services Administration and other agencies to ensure that the information is publicly available on a central Web site within 30 days of a grant being awarded.

The bill would require information such as the name of the grantee and subgrantees and all awards the grantee has received in the past 10 years. The federal government annually awards about $300 billion in grants to nearly 30,000 organizations nationwide.

This legislation could be part of a reform effort to increase accountability and disclose whether certain political jurisdictions might be getting more than their fair share of grants, said Jon Harrison, social sciences collections coordinator and funding center supervisor at Michigan State University.

“If so, it would provide more ammunition,” he said. State officials complain when their states send the federal government more money than they receive. Michigan is one of those states, he said.

Congress is taking other steps to bring transparency to money-related activities in Washington, D.C. The Senate passed its version of a lobbying reform bill March 29. It would require lawmakers to use their official legislative Web sites to reveal the items for which lobbyists pay, such as meals and travel. A House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on its version of the bill April 4.

Congress is counting on the lobbying reform bills to help restore public confidence by November, when all representatives and one-third of the senators will be eligible for re-election. “Transparency is a vital tool to ensure that Congress, the press and the American public have the information they need to conduct oversight of the use of our tax dollars,” Blunt said, adding that the proposed database would help them do that.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the reform committee’s ranking Democrat, agreed with Blunt. “The bill is on the right track,” he said.

Harrison said most people he encounters who are seeking grant information are interested in sources of nonprofit or academic grant money. They usually are not researching who received what grant and when. “So from that point of view, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, Grants.gov and miscellaneous other sources are sufficient,” he said.

But proposal writing expert Deborah Kluge, who hosts a Web site about grant information, said a database of awarded grants would be useful for organizations and individuals seeking grant funding. However, such a database would be time consuming to create. “To my mind, it would take years to gather and input the current backlog of information, prior to gathering and imputing data on a regular, ongoing basis,” she said.

Government Reform Committee spokesman Robert White said the Web site called for in the legislation could be the existing Grants.gov or a new, separate site. OMB can decide what makes the most sense, he said. “We want this information to be easy to read, easy to understand and easily available,” he added.

Elizabeth Breed, supervisor of grant information collections at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said a single database would allow grant-seekers to contact former grantees for tips on getting funds. “It would be really great for people looking for federal grants.”

Blunt and Davis’ bill has been sent for further review to the Government Reform Committee.

“This legislation will make it easier for all Americans to understand where their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent,” Davis said.

PosthasteTwo House Republicans introduced a bill last week that would increase accountability and transparency in federal grant awards. H.R. 5060 would require that agencies post specific information about all grants on a centralized Web site. That site could be Grants.gov or a separate, new site.

Within 30 days of a grant being awarded, agencies would have to publish the following information:

  • The name of the grantee and subgrantees.

  • An itemized breakdown of assistance by agency and program source.

  • All awards the grantee has received for the past 10 years.

  • A list of dates and amounts of federal financial assistance awarded to the grantee.
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