Responding to GSA, House easily approves bill to track spending

The House on Wednesday quickly approved legislation that would significantly improve the ability to track how federal dollars are spent, and also cut the travel budgets of federal agencies by 20 percent from 2010 levels.

The travel budget cut is a direct response to the General Services Administration's (GSA) 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost $830,000, and which has drawn criticism from both parties as a waste of taxpayer money.

Members of the House from both parties left no doubt that this cut, and the overall need to provide greater transparency on the government's spending habits, are needed steps if taxpayers are to have any confidence in the ability of Washington to manage its money.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency act, or the DATA act, would create one online resource that explains how federal money is spent, and get data from recipients of federal funds. House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) indicated that this bill, had it been in place, would have made it easier to more quickly see how GSA was wasting taxpayer funds.

"They explained to us that part of the way they spent $830,000-plus was in fact to cobble together, as they put it, multiple baskets of money," Issa said, referring to GSA's explanation of how it was able to afford its controversial 2010 conference. "If you didn't know and couldn't trace how they spent their money, you wouldn't know that it was spent on … a mind-reader and a clown.

"With the DATA act, we expect that and many other wasteful practices to be brought to an end."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) agreed that the bill would help prevent the abuse of taxpayer funds at GSA.

"It is good government, it is bipartisan, it is something that we can all agree on, it is common sense, and if it had been in place earlier, we could have possibly prevented the type of abuse that we are both dedicated to cleaning up," she said.

Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) also agreed on the need for the bill, and noted that the Obama administration in 2011 proposed reduced travel by agencies.

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who proposed the addition of the 20 percent travel budget cut, said the bill would send a message to federal agencies that taxpayers are paying attention.

"The American taxpayer is watching, and they're sick and tired of the blank-check mentality," he said. "Let's make sure that taxpayer dollars are no longer spent on lavish conferences."

Data Transparency Coalition executive director Hudson Hollister called the passage of the act a "critical step toward getting America’s fiscal house in order" and a way to "bring more transparency and better accountability" to government. Hollister helped write the DATA act while serving as counsel to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. 

Former Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board Chairman Earl Devaney, who now serves on the coalition's board of advisers, said "we proved that data-driven transparency and accountability are technologically possible" by tracking Recovery Act spending at Recovery.gov. Devaney said "[i]t's now up to the Senate" for transparency to be seen as politically viable as the new normal for government.

Another sign of support for the bill, H.R. 2146, was how it was passed. Members approved it by unanimous consent, with most of the chamber empty, and no member called for a recorded vote.