House approves DATA Act

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The House approved April 25 by voice vote a bill that would require federal contractors and grant recipients to report quarterly their receipt and use of federal dollars.The bill, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act (H.R. 2146), would also legislatively institutionalize the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board the Obama administration set up in 2009 to oversee stimulus spending. Agencies would have to report all obligations and expenditures to the board--something agencies already do monthly to the Treasury Department.  

The version approved by the House would not give the board (titled the Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission) subpoena power, unlike earlier committee versions. The bill's primary sponsor is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In addition, the bill approved Wednesday contains a rider from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that would limit civilian travel spending to 80 percent of fiscal 2010 levels through fiscal 2016 and caps federal agency conference spending at $500,000 per event. The amendment was added in response to revelations that the General Services Administration's Public Building Services spent $823,000 on a lavish Las Vegas conference in 2010.

When it comes to data standards for reporting by agencies and federal dollar recipients, the bill states that reporting should to the extent possible incorporate existing standards, "such as the eXtensible Business Reporting Language," known as XBRL.

Issa's advocacy for XBRL has been a reason for criticism of the bill among those who contend that the XML-based schema doesn't capture all the complexities of federal accounting.

Unlike most of the private sector, the federal government utilizes both cash and accrual accounting (the former to account for budgetary resources at hand). However, even budgetary resources come in different "colors of money" depending on restrictions Congress has placed on their use, such as requirements that money be spent within 12 months--limits wholly without parallel in the private sector, for which XBRL taxonomies have mostly been designed.

Even were the federal government to adopt an XBRL schema already utilized by the private sector, in other words, it would likely lack key elements of federal accounting.

XBRL is currently used by the Securities and Exchange Commission, but only for the filing of private sector financial statements rather than financial data.

Passage of the bill has been urged by the Data Transparency Coalition, a trade association launched earlier this year. Its executive director is Hudson Hollister, a former counsel of the House Oversight Committee and an XBRL proponent.

For more:
- go to the THOMAS page for the DATA Act

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