The House plans to vote Wednesday on legislation in the works for more than a year that was tweaked in recent days to address the unfolding spending scandal at the General Services Administration.
The bipartisan measure would establish new government-wide financial reporting standards by requiring federal agencies to report all spending information to a centralized Web site. It also would require all government contractors, subcontractors and grant recipients to report how they spend federal dollars.
But the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) now also includes provisions that slash spending by federal agencies on conferences by 20 percent from levels set in 2010, which supporters say could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The bipartisan bill also would cap spending on individual conferences at $500,000, but an agency could seek additional funding for the meeting from outside sources. Agencies also would be barred from sending more than 50 personnel to international meetings, unless the secretary of state determines that a higher number is needed.
The Senate unanimously agreed Tuesday to add the same proposal to a bill overhauling the U.S. Postal Service that is expected to earn a final vote Wednesday. It was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
In the House, the bill’s lead co-sponsor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said Tuesday that recent revelations about the GSA’s spending habits justified including caps on agency conference spending.
A GSA inspector general report published this month revealed how agency officials authorized $823,000 for an October 2010 conference attended by 300 employees in Las Vegas that included private parties, a mind-reader, a talent show, a $75,000 bicycle-building exercise and high-priced finger foods. Before the conference, agency officials also spent $130,000 on eight scouting and planning trips to Las Vegas.
In addition to the Coburn-Issa plan, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has proposed capping agency conference spending instead at $200,000 per meeting. And Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) Tuesday proposed cutting federal agency travel budgets by 75 percent over three years.
Transparency advocates and “good government” groups have long pushed for passage of a bill like the DATA Act, because they say it adopts the rigorous reporting standards first applied to the 2009 economic stimulus program and applies them government-wide.
Passing the bill would mean that “if a company gets a federal contract to repair your neighborhood school but then subcontracts the work to another corporation, such as former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, you’ll be able to track the flow of funds and see who is getting paid what to do the work,” said Katherine McFate, president of OMB Watch, a nonpartisan group that tracks federal spending and regulations.
Earl Devaney, who until recently served as chairman of the board tracking stimulus spending, said that only a bill passed by Congress, and not a presidential executive order, could ever compel agencies to follow the same reporting standards, because it carries the weight of law.
“Nothing makes a bureaucrat move faster than a piece of legislation,” Devaney said. “Legislation is the only way to get all these agencies to do the same thing at the same time.”
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