Werfel: New laws could set back transparency efforts

Laws that enhance transparency are good, but only to the point that they don't interfere with efforts already underway, argues OMB's Danny Werfel.

Lawmakers should not pass new legislation that could upend the administration’s progress on making government spending more transparent, said Danny Werfel, controller at the Office of Management and Budget. Werfel told a Senate committee that lawmakers need to seriously think about the impact of new statutes on ongoing efforts to improve government accounting and tracking its money.

The administration has been implementing new laws, such as the Improper Payment Elimination and Recovery Act and another law that updates the Government Performance and Results Act, called the GPRA Modernization Act.

As Congress considers new transparency measures, Werfel offered a key question for senators to ask themselves when considering proposed legislation: Would  the new law reinforce current objectives, or would it move the government in different directions?

If it would turn the government in a new direction, then it will cost more money. For instance, federal information systems that agencies have been building would need to be reengineered once again for “a new nuanced set of requirements and standards,” he said.

“We need to have a real compelling case for why these additional data elements or additional changes are important, because they could necessitate a diversion of resources from where we’re currently executing against a set of statutes,” he told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in a hearing held July 18.

Nevertheless, transparency legislation is moving through Congress. In April, the House passed by voice vote its Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or the DATA Act (H.R. 2146). The bill would create the Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission, which is to succeed the board that oversaw spending reports for the 2009 economic stimulus law. In addition, agencies would be required to submit their spending data to a new platform with consistent electronic identifiers and markup language.

Werfel has not been in favor of the DATA Act. In a speech in June, Werfel said the bill would add more regulatory complexity while removing some of the necessary OMB oversight.

Today, Werfel said he doesn’t object to the relentless pursuit of transparency, but he’s concerned about the details.

“The disagreements are in the strategy in how we get there,” he said.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced a Senate version of the DATA Act (S. 1222) in 2011, but today said he intends reintroduce the bill with changes. He told the committee his primary goal is to expand the existing law to require the government to disclose to taxpayers federal spending in greater detail. However, he’s seeing things differently since last year.

“I will admit that a year ago I believed that we needed a new government entity to oversee transparency and my opinion has evolved over the past year,” he said in testimony. Based on the progress the government has made, the more cost-effective way of doing it is not duplicating efforts that are already underway.

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