Hill studies spending database

Experts say it’s technically possible, but politically difficult

Few technical experts doubt the feasibility of establishing a central, searchable database that can track all types of federal spending.

If large banks can monitor individual credit card transactions, certainly the Office of Management and Budget can set up a Web site for federal expenditures, said Alan Webber, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.

“It would be a huge undertaking, but it would be feasible,” Webber said. “This is easy,” when compared to monitoring personal banking records.

But whether such an idea is politically feasible is something else entirely. “The lobbyists are not going to want this to come out,” Webber said.

Searchable Web site

Webber is referring to legislation, introduced earlier this year by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), that would require OMB to set up a searchable Web site containing data on all sorts of federal spending, including contracts, subcontracts, grants, subgrants, loans and other financial assistance.

The database must be searchable by agency, geography, industry, congressional district and types of federal funding, the bill says.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the bill at its July 27 business meeting. Committee chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) has expressed her support for the bill. If enacted, S 2590 would require the site to be operational by Jan. 1, 2008.

There is no House companion bill, but a narrower version was introduced by Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who marshaled it through the House in June. The House bill, HR 5060, focuses exclusively on grants.

The government currently relies on the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation, a database maintained by the General Services Administration, to track information about federal procurement contracts. GSA, through its contract with Global Computer Enterprises Inc. of Reston, Va., enhanced the system in 2004. It now interfaces with nearly all agency procurement systems.

Although the system is widely praised as a good first step in providing transparency in government spending, government auditors last year said the system has been plagued with compatibility problems and incomplete data.

Coburn, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, said at a recent hearing on his bill that FPDS-NG and the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, which provides quarterly data on grants and awards, do not provide enough details.

“The bottom line is that there is no single source of information explaining where federal money is spent, and there should be,” Coburn said.

Experts said setting up such a system, at least technically, should not be a problem.

David Lucas, director of government relations at Global Computer Enterprises, said the existing procurement database has made tremendous improvements since the September 2005 Government Accountability Office report and has the potential to meet the legislation’s mandate.

Lucas said the infrastructure is in place, and it would be a matter of just adding additional data and a search engine to FPDS-NG.

In fact, the system now has enhanced the tools to interconnect with other agency procurement reporting systems, Lucas said.

“Now that we have built a bridge to all these procurement systems, we should use that bridge and that infrastructure to meet the next set of requirements,” Lucas said. “From a technical standpoint, FPDS-NG was built to have all kinds of data in it.”

Politically, though, the bill could run into problems.

Forrester’s Webber said that for commercial and competitive reasons, vendors may not want to disclose every bit of information to the public.

The bill also could be a casualty of timing, as the legislative calendar is getting short and lawmakers are anxious to get home to their districts. With this being an election year, the chances of Congress working past early October are slim, congressional observers said.

But with House majority whip Blunt and Government Reform Committee chair- man Davis throwing their collective muscle behind the grants database, legislation to bolster spending transparency is gaining momentum.

Robert White, spokes- man for Davis’ committee, said his boss
is considering ways to further enhance FPDS-NG.

OMB spokeswoman Andrea Wuebker said the White House has been in touch with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about enhancing FPDS-NG as well.

“OMB’s goal is to ensure this information can easily be searched at a single location online, and we support these efforts to make government resources work more effectively for our taxpayers,” she said.

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