Shining a light on government spending

Lawmakers and watchdog groups foresee greater accountability for federal spending

Background on the bill, S. 2590

With just weeks to go before midterm elections, Congress has sped through a bill that proponents say will eventually enable the public to scrutinize how the federal government spends $1 trillion each year through contracts and grants.

The bill, known as the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, directs the Office of Management and Budget to create a searchable online database of federal spending by Jan. 1, 2008, with information updated through fiscal 2007.

Using a Google-like search engine, users will be able to find how much funding an organization received in each of the past 10 fiscal years, a breakdown of transactions and additional details about the organization.

Such transparency does not exist now, experts say. The data is all there, but it is spread across numerous systems, making it difficult for anyone to piece together meaningful information and identify areas of concern, they say.

“If implemented properly, public oversight of federal spending will indeed increase,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D.-Ill.), a supporter of the bill.

Current public databases on federal spending, such as the Federal Assistance Award Data System and the Federal Procurement Data System, are plagued with problems, Davis said. The legislation would prohibit the database’s creators from simply linking to those databases.

Davis said its effectiveness will depend on its implementation. “Without it, we will be where we are now with poor access to information,” he added.

Clay Johnson, OMB’s deputy director for management, said most of the data that the bill requires already exists in some form. Building the database site will require more time and effort than money, Johnson said. The biggest task, he said, will be gathering the data into one location. Federal agencies will primarily be responsible for that task.

Johnson said OMB expects to complete a plan for creating the database Web site as early as January 2007. In 2009, the database must provide information on subgrantees and subcontractors.

In addition to the searchable database, the legislation would also require an annual report to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Government Reform Committee about public feedback and use of the site.

The report must include an assessment of the reporting burden on recipients of federal funds.

“One of the most important aspects of this is truly changing the culture,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the bill’s co-sponsor. “You can, without transparency, do things that you would not otherwise do,” he said, without elaborating further.

Coburn said OMB must meet a high standard because the public-interest group OMB Watch has a project to create a similar database of federal grants and contracts with a budget that is less than the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for the OMB database.

CBO estimated that the government will spend $15 million in the next five years to create the online database. Coburn said OMB Watch estimates its project would cost less than $500,000.

CBO estimated the OMB’s initial project expense at $4 million. Additions would cost as much as $5 million in fiscal 2008 and would level out at $2 million for subsequent fiscal years, according to CBO.

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” said House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) on the House floor Sept. 13.

That night, the House passed the transparency bill by voice vote. The Senate had passed it by unanimous consent Sept. 7.

Patrice McDermott, director of the watchdog group OpenTheGovernment.

org, said she is pleased with the bill and expects to see a positive effect on government transparency and openness.

Poor data quality in current databases prevents true transparency, McDermott said. But, she added, the new database would give citizens the ability to force the government to improve the quality of its data.

Once citizens know things they hadn’t been able to learn before, she added, “they may start thinking about the other things they’d like to know.”

Lawmakers give credit to advocacy groups for bipartisan billAn unusual alignment of advocacy groups pushed Congress to pass the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. Their efforts created the right environment to send the legislation quickly to President Bush’s desk, according to the bill’s sponsors.

“This bill would not have passed if not for excellent advocacy,” said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s very rare when you get that kind of alignment.” He said support came from groups including OMB Watch, the socially conservative Family Research Council and citizen lobbying group Common Cause.

The number of editorials in newspapers nationwide also drew attention to the bill. Moreover, Obama said, bloggers had an influence.

“This was a perfect storm,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the bill’s original sponsor. The two freshmen senators are looking for more opportunities to improve government. They are working on legislation that would forbid the Federal Emergency Management Agency from awarding no-bid contracts worth more than $500,000.

— Matthew Weigelt

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