White House Conspicuously Silent As It Attacks A Bill To Make Spending Transparent

Barack Obama’s presidency was supposed to usher in a new wave of data transparency. And, with the exception of the NSA, the administration has pioneered groundbreaking open government initiatives, from maps of stimulus spending to the vaults of consumer energy use. But, as the Senate pushes to make federal spending transparent to the public, forces inside the White House are silently defang-ing the most powerful provisions without any explanation.

“The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act,” Senator Mark Warner told FedScoop. “DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable.”

The DATA Act, which had overwhelming approval in the House of Representatives, would essentially allow citizens to monitor federal spending. Right now, groups such as transparency advocate The Sunlight Foundation, argue that federal spending is nearly impossible to track.

Remember when taxpayers footed the $823,000 bill for a government agency to party it up in Las Vegas? The DATA Act, would, theoretically, make this type of accounting available in a format that could be monitored and analyzed by experts.

The powerful Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has made unusual efforts to centralize authority in making spending transparency. A proposal to gut the most important provisions of the DATA Act was leaked to the Data Transparency Coalition.

The leaked document reveals OMB wants to strip rules requiring standardized data from all agencies and would significantly delay the implementation.

“The stance taken by OMB in the leaked document does not reflect the administration’s stated values, but it does reflect OMB’s shoddy history of commitment to quality spending data.” writes the Sunlight Foundation.

I work with the White House on a lot of open government stories, so usually I can just email a few folks and get an explanation. On this, I’ve gotten nothing but a cold shoulder and boilerplate responses.

“The Administration believes data transparency is a critical element to good government, and we share the goal of advancing transparency and accountability of Federal spending. We will continue to work with Congress and other stakeholders to identify the most effective & efficient use of taxpayer dollars to accomplish this goal,” was the answer I got via email.

I followed up with my sources, who are usually quite forthcoming about open data. Nothing.

The thing is, the DATA Act has the support of transparency advocates who previously worked in the White House. “It’s an act of law that makes people do things,” says former US Inspector General Earl Devaney, who was tasked by Obama to oversee Data.gov. I interviewed him a few years ago when the DATA ACt was being debated. The benefits of transparency, he continues, “can be codified best by a piece of legislation like the DATA Act.”

Someone within the ranks of the White House, most likely at a senior level, is torpedoing a bill and no one seems to know why. If there was a legitimate reason, someone could just walk us through the arguments and we could have the debate out in the open.

We will continue to investigate and hope the White House is more forthcoming with the American people.

[Image Credit: Flickr user Daniela Vladimirova]