Federal agencies are finally submitting their spending data to a special public database so taxpayers can see where the money is going — but a majority of the numbers are little more than junk, according to a new government report Tuesday.
Some $240 billion in spending listed on USASpending.gov, the government’s one-stop shop for federal spending, is inaccurate, the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations reported.
Every one of the 354 spending transactions the Energy Department listed in the database during a three-month period at the beginning of 2017 contained at least one error. The Treasury Department — which is responsible for overseeing the data from across the government — also botched things, with 96 percent of its own data deemed erroneous, the audit found.
USASpending.gov was created as part of the 2014 DATA Act, which was intended to replace the government’s older public spending catalog with a more accurate, up-to-date version that would expose government decisions to public scrutiny.
“It is troubling that most federal agencies failed to comply with this law, and more than half of all the spending data federal agencies submitted was inaccurate,” said Sen. Rob Portman, chairman of the subcommittee.
Departments and agencies are supposed to regularly submit their verified data, and inspectors general must make sure it was complete and accurate.
But the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments’ figures were so bad that all of their spending — a combined $45 billion in one three-month period at the start of 2017 — was deemed erroneous because it couldn’t be audited.
Likewise all $4.1 billion the Energy Department reported to USASpending.gov was deemed incorrect.
The worst offender was the Social Security Administration, which couldn’t back up more than $91 billion in spending data.
The audit was based on work by the government’s inspectors general, who work inside agencies and departments to monitor waste, fraud and compliance with the law.
Democratic and Republican subcommittee staffers collaborated on the new report.
They said concerns over the complexity of government spending and the public’s inability to grasp the complexities date back at least to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1802 complained to his Treasury secretary that things had gotten out of control. He blamed his nemesis, former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, for intentionally complicating things so “that neither the president or Congress should be able to understand it, or to control him.”
“He succeeded in doing this, not only beyond their reach, but so that he at length could not unravel it himself,” Jefferson concluded.
He demanded government spending be compiled in one “single mass” for better accountability.
The DATA Act was supposed to help facilitate that with the updated version of USASpending.gov.
The new audit says the government has made an early start, but has fallen well short of the user-friendly, accurate and reliable data promised by the law.
Thirteen of 78 agencies examined by the Government Accountability Office didn’t even submit their data by last year’s May deadline. One of those was the massive Defense Department.
And the website itself returns completely different results for the same data, depending on how the user searches, the audit found.
One method of searching the Labor Department’s spending on unemployment insurance expenditures in 2017 returns a figure of $29.6 billion. Another type of search for the same data returns a total of $3 billion — for a difference of more than $26 billion.
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