Show us the DATA on government spending

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Introduced last month with bipartisan co-sponsorship by Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mark Warner (D-VA), the DATA bill would standardize and improve federal financial data collection and require that spending data be posted to the USASpending.gov website. A previous version of the DATA act passed the House this April by voice vote.
 
“This legislation will allow us to track the full cycle of federal spending on one website, and that should be incredibly helpful to both taxpayers and policymakers,” Warner told the Center for American Progress in an e-mail. “The DATA Act creates a powerful new tool that should improve the way the federal government does business. This legislation is an example of how Washington is supposed to work—across the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol.”
 
The new bill would create data standards for collecting and reporting spending data throughout the federal government, and it would expand the current USASpending.gov website to display Treasury spending data. These data would include information on how much money has gone out the door for contracts and grants, as well as what the government spends on real estate, salaries, and other non-contracted services. Posting data on how much money is spent, and not just how much has been allocated, will “put the nation’s checkbook online,” said good-government group OMBWatch.
 
While data standardization may not be a hot-button political issue, government oversight and research can be significantly hampered by variations in current data-keeping practices. Nearly every agency has its own standards for data collection, tracking, and disclosure, making it incredibly difficult to compare spending patterns agency-to-agency.
 
And while the current USASpending.gov website is a good first step toward showing how much money is spent on grants and contracts by budget area, information on the deliverables or performance of those grants and contracts is sparse.
 
To be sure, just establishing data standards and making more spending data publicly available and easily accessible will not by itself deter lawmakers from the Congressional sport of bemoaning alleged $16 muffins or road-crossing tunnels for wildlife.
 
But more data transparency could call out the real boondoggles—and will certainly help the public better understand where their tax dollars go. These are goals that lawmakers of both parties should share, and the new version of the DATA Act is an important next step toward government data transparency.
 
Costa is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress.