Administration, Congress Move to Improve Financial Transparency

On June 13th, 2011, two separate but comparable offensives were launched in the fight for better transparency and accountability in government spending. Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca) introduced HR 2146, the Digital and Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA). Only hours later, the White House issued an Executive Order that addressed future plans for "Delivering an efficient, effective, and accountable government." Both called for the formation of independent oversight boards modeled on the success of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board’s recipient-reporting model.

At the Committee’s hearing, RATB Chairman Earl Devaney, who would also chair the oversight board created by the executive order, said the DATA Act and executive order are compatible efforts with common goals.  According to Nextgov, Devaney suggested that the legislation and EO will lead to a better—and faster–reform. "I think that nothing works better than legislation with firm dates in it. In large part, the executive order is so we can do things now, so we can take some lessons learned and so we can adapt some of the ideas I have and others have."

In some ways, the executive order remedies some weaknesses of the DATA Act. OMB Watch cited the lack of performance information requirements or the creation of metrics as a key flaw in the legislation. The White House’s EO tasks the Federal Chief Performance Officer (CPO) with creating performance metrics and requires that the updates be posted quarterly on the website.

The differences, however, lie in the streamlining of cross-agency coordination and cooperation, and the permanence of reform. DATA’s board would tackle coordination issues through standardization of data elements for all government spending information systems. The EO simply gives the CPO and Chair of the President’s Management Council the responsibility to "facilitate cooperation." The order also extends to address program overlap and duplication, which DATA does not address.

DATA, which would repeal the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, also includes a sunset provision and would require reauthorization in seven years. This aspect seems contrary to the message of the Obama administration’s emphasis on changing the culture of transparency in the federal government, which Vice President Biden made clear at his announcement of the new panel on Monday. Biden said only government-wide consistency and accountability would allow citizens to have confidence that their tax dollars were not going to waste.

In his opening remarks at yesterday’s hearing, Rep. Issa recognized that the plans had different approaches to a similar goal.

"There are differences in how we get there from where we are, from a labyrinth of failed and partially successful programs to one single, accountable system that is less burdensome and more effective for all Americans."

Update: On June 16th, 2011, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced S. 1222, the Senate companion to Representative Issa’s legislation. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee, which is chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

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