Tomorrow a new U.S. Congress – the 113th, elected last November – will be sworn in. The 112th Congress finished its run with a divisive confrontation on fiscal priorities.
Advocates of opening up government data are rightfully disappointed at the lack of Congressional action on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act. The DATA Act, championed by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in the House of Representatives and by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) in the Senate, would have required the U.S. government to publish all executive-branch spending data on a single Internet portal. Spending data is currently reported to at least seven separate compilations maintained by different agencies, some publicly accessible and others not.
The DATA Act also would have set up consistent data identifiers and markup languages for all spending data, which would have allowed the separate compilations to be searched together, dramatically enhancing government accountability.
The DATA Act would generate new opportunities for the tech industry, as our Coalition demonstrated at its DATA Demo Day last summer. If U.S. federal spending data were consistently published and standardized – Big Data analytics companies could develop new ways to find waste and fraud; financial management vendors could offer new services to their existing federal clients; and infomediaries like Google could republish and repackage the data for the public and profit from advertising revenues.
The DATA Act was first introduced in both chambers in June 2011, and shortly thereafter was approved by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and sent to the full House of Representatives. After further revisions the bill passed the full House in April 2012. In September 2012, Sens. Warner and Portman rewrote and reintroduced the bill in the Senate to address objections from grantees and contractors. But the next step – consideration by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) and the committee’s recommendation to the full Senate – never occurred, because the committee did not hold a business meeting between the DATA Act’s reintroduction and the end of the Congress. The HSGAC’s leaders – chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-ME) – didn’t find the DATA Act important enough to merit the time and effort of a committee meeting, deliberation, and a vote.
With the end of the 112th Congress and the start of the 113th, all pending legislative proposals are wiped out and must be re-introduced.
Is the DATA Act dead? Absolutely not! Chances are good that the bill will be introduced again and passed – by both chambers, this time! – in 2013.
The DATA Act’s champions aren’t going away. Rep. Issa, the DATA Act’s original author, and Sen. Warner, its first Senate sponsor, remain well-placed to champion a new version of the bill, with Issa keeping his position as chairman of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Meanwhile, term limits and retirement will bring new leadership to the Senate HSGAC: chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and ranking member Tom Coburn (R-OK). Carper and Coburn may well prove more enthusiastic about pursuing data transparency in federal spending than Lieberman and Collins were.
The Recovery Board’s spending accountability portal IS going away. The original DATA Act was based on lessons learned from the work of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the temporary federal agency established by Congress in 2009 to oversee the spending mandated by the economic stimulus law. The Recovery Board used standardized electronic identifiers and markup languages to make its online accountability portal fully accurate, complete, and searchable. According to the Recovery Board’s most recent report, inspectors general using the portal recovered $40 million in stimulus funds from questionable contractors and grantees and prevented $30 million from being paid out in the first place. The Recovery Board’s portal could easily be expanded to cover all spending rather than just stimulus spending. (No reliable government-wide spending accountability portal exists.) But the Recovery Board’s legal mandate only covers overseeing the stimulus. The temporary agency will be eliminated when the stimulus law expires on September 30, 2013. Unless Congress acts, the Recovery Board’s portal will be decommissioned on that date – and replaced with nothing. The Recovery Board’s imminent demise should put pressure on Congress to pass legislation to make sure that the time, money, and effort spent to create the stimulus accountability portal are not wasted. The April 2012 House version of the DATA Act – and amendments our Coalition suggested for the September 2012 Senate version – would do exactly that.
The press is taking notice. Last month, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank asked why the DATA Act – “so uncontroversial that it passed the House on a voice vote” – has yet to achieve full passage. Milbank’s reaction is that of any smart layperson: the need to publish all federal spending data online, and make it fully searchable through electronic standardization, sounds like something the executive branch should be doing already – and if it isn’t, Congress should tell it to.
Inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office have called for legislation. In testimony before the House of Representatives, the chair of the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency called on Congress to pass the DATA Act. The Comptroller General of the United States, who heads the Government Accountability Office, sent a similar message to the Senate (video – 56:00).
There’s no other way. Connecting Big Government to Big Data will help citizens and watchdogs confront waste and fraud, while also bolstering our fastest-growing industry. No other proposal promises to do that.