House passes bill focused on putting more gov't spending info online

The DATA Act aims to help lawmakers and the public better track federal spending online

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill focused on helping taxpayers track federal spending online.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) passed the House by voice vote Wednesday.

The bill establishes an independent board to track all federal spending on a single website and requires agencies to report data in a standardized format. The bill mandates the use of governmentwide identifier codes and markup languages, such as XBRL, in an effort to make government data easily searchable.

The bill also requires recipients of federal grants and contracts to report those amounts in standardized formats.

"The winners with this effort will be the American people," said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chief sponsor of the bill. "The American people ... will find it possible to get meaningful information about where their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent."

The government has the technology to better track spending, "if we just embrace it," Issa said on the House floor. The bill will save taxpayers billions of dollars, he said.

The bill could help prevent future spending scandals, such as the recently revealed U.S. General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas in 2010 that cost US$823,000, Issa added. The GSA "cobbled together" money to pay for the conference, and better tracking may have raised questions among lawmakers and the public before the conference, he said.

All the lawmakers who talked about the DATA Act Wednesday on the House floor spoke in favor of the bill.

Federal agency budget-reporting systems are now fractured and ineffective, supporters said. The bill would create a central online repository for agency budget information, supporters said.

"This is designed to save money," said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. "Currently available data on federal spending is incomplete, confusing and inconsistent. This act would centralize and simplify the convoluted reporting that is in place now."

When constituents now call with specific questions about federal budgets, it's often difficult to give a complete answer, said Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican. It's difficult, even for a lawmaker, to give accurate information on the cost of a contract or what grant money was spent, he said.

"We want every single taxpayer to be able to look in and be able to see how their money is spent," he said.

OMB Watch, a government transparency advocate, and the Data Transparency Coalition, a group of tech companies focused on online publishing of government information, both applauded the House vote.

"The DATA Act is a critical step toward getting America's fiscal house in order," Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, said in a statement. "By transforming the way the government reports its spending, the DATA Act will bring more transparency and better accountability, while presenting new opportunities for tech startups to analyze federal data and help prevent waste, fraud and abuse. "

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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