August 25, 2014
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit from June found that federal agencies failed to report nearly $619 billion in grants, loans, voucher programs, and other forms of federal assistance to USAspending.gov during fiscal year 2012. In other words, nearly one-quarter of the $2.6 trillion spent on federal assistance that year went unreported.
The GAO report, titled Data Transparency: Oversight Needed to Address Underreporting and Inconsistencies on Federal Award Website, found that although agencies generally reported required information for government contracts, they did not properly report information on grants and other federal assistance. This federal spending information is supposed to be reported to USAspending.gov, a website created in 2007 by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to bring transparency to government spending. As of January 2013—two months after the deadline for reporting fiscal year 2012 awards—agencies had not properly reported 342 programs, 27 of which belong to the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS) totaling $543 billion. Another 5 assistance awards totaling $64 billion went unreported by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In total, failed reporting by HHS and the VA make up 98 percent of the missing $619 billion in assistance awards spending. The GAO was not able to break the $619 billion down into discrete spending categories.
Further, the audit found that few federal assistance awards or contracts were reported with all the required information, which includes the award amount, program source, and the desired purpose of program funding. Some agencies claimed not to know what to report, while others ignored the instructions entirely. The GAO found that fewer than 7 percent of the awards had information "fully consistent" with agencies' records. (To find the missing awards information data, GAO researchers consulted the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance and the Public Budget Database.)
The DATA Act, which was signed by President Obama in May, requires the Department of the Treasury and OMB to transform federal spending from "disconnected documents into open, standardized data, and to publish that data online." Additionally, the DATA Act transfers full oversight of USAspending.gov from OMB to the Treasury. The Project On Government Oversight supported the DATA Act and thinks it will add much-needed clarity to federal spending, starting with the budget process and ending with the actual outlays.
Many Members of Congress, including Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Mark Warner (D-Va.)—who are all co-sponsors of the DATA Act—were unhappy to learn of USAspending.gov's failure to provide full and accurate data and OMB's failure to properly oversee the accuracy of the site. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who, along with then-Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), was an original sponsor of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act that called for the creation of USAspending.gov in 2006, was particularly displeased.