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The Real Winner Of The Budget Deal: Auditors

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WASHINGTON -- The budget deal agreed to by White House and congressional negotiators Friday night may be built upon the notion of belt-tightening and austerity. But the bill could potentially be a major job boon for one sector.

Auditors and auditing play a recurring role in the text of the final continuing resolution, as government agencies are required to repeatedly report on their activities. In total, the word "audit" is mentioned 20 times in the body of the resolution and the word "report" (as in, "file a…") is seen on at least 60 pages.

Often the function is required in exchange for funds; sometimes, however, it's for the sake of transparency or, more cynically, politics. There are, for instance, several targets for audits outlined in the bill that encompass domestic policy programs that have drawn intense Republican ire.

Within 90 days of the budget resolution's passage, the Comptroller General of the United States is required to “report on the costs and processes of implementing” President Barack Obama’s health care law. The information sought includes “the name of the contractors, their general areas of expertise, and the amount of money expended on each such contract, entered into by the Department of Health and Human Services and other Federal departments and agencies to provide services.” HHS also must reveal the firms it’s hired to “facilitate contracting with such contractors,” and the “consultants who have been hired ... to assist in implementing [the legislation].”

The resolution also requires a Government Accountability Office audit of the requests the Obama administration has received for waivers from the health care legislation's requirements, to take place no later than 60 days after its passage. In the same time frame, the GAO must submit a report to Congress on the impact of comparative effectiveness research funding. Within 90 days for the bill’s passage, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services must submit a report to Congress “that contains an estimate of the impact of the guaranteed [coverage] issue, guaranteed renewal, and community rating requirements” under the law.

Health care isn’t the only Obama-era measure the budget deal tackles. The newly-created Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection gets its fair amount of sunlight as well, as the resolution calls for both an “annual independent audit” and an annual GAO audit of the bureau.

The scope of material subjected to the probes goes deeper, however, than the CFPB itself. According to the bill's language, “the Comptroller General of the United States shall conduct a study of financial services regulations, including activities of the Bureau.” This means an analysis of “the impact of regulation on the financial marketplace, including the effects on the safety and soundness of regulated entities, cost and availability of credit, savings realized by consumers, reductions in consumer paperwork burden, changes in personal and small business bankruptcy filings, and costs of compliance with rules, including whether relevant Federal agencies are applying sound cost-benefit analysis in promulgating rules.” Within 30 days, the Comptroller General is supposed to suggest “legislative or administrative action” that it may “determine to be appropriate.”

Health care and consumer financial protection are just two of the more high-profile areas the bill subjects to audits or reports.

By midsummer, the body scanner debate may be back in the news, as the resolution requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to submit to the House and Senate’s appropriations committees a detailed report on “efforts and the resources being devoted to develop more advanced integrated passenger screening technologies for the most effective security of passengers” no later than Aug. 15.

In the foreign policy realm, the budget bill mandates a “coordinated audit” from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Inspector General of the Department of State, and the Inspector General of the United States Agency for International Development within 45 days. Every month, meanwhile, the Department of Defense will report on operating costs of the Iraq war (and withdrawal). With respect to private contracting, the Secretary of Defense must provide reports not only on major defense acquisitions but also the process of assessing winning bids.

Then there are the lower-profile audits, bound to produce reports that, according to Daniel Schuman, director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency at open-government group Sunlight Foundation, Congress will almost surely gloss over.

The budget bill, for example, dictates that the Secretary of the Treasury reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the Asian Development Bank “is making substantial progress toward the following policy goals” in exchange for support. The Department of the Treasury, Departmental Offices, Salaries and Expenses must transfer funds to the National Academy of Sciences for a carbon audit of the tax code. And before signing off on financial assistance, the Secretary of State is required to report to the Committees on Appropriations on steps being taken by the Government of Chad “to implement a plan of action to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, including the demobilization of child soldiers.”

Not all of the bill's language will result in more data sharing. Despite its emphasis on auditing, the bill also calls for significant cuts to programs that help promote government transparency, as noted in a blog post on Tuesday by the Sunlight Foundation. The electronic government fund, which pays for USASpending.gov, Data.gov, and the IT Dashboard, saw its funding reduced to $8 million (it once stood at $34 million).

But while Sunlight bemoaned those particular cuts, it begrudgingly acknowledged that, if properly utilized by Congress, the bill's emphasis on auditing and polling could be a positive development.

“As long as the reporting requirements are sensibly crafted, we think it is a good thing,” said Schuman. “Often times, if there isn’t someone who says 'you really need to look at this report' … Congress simply won’t focus on these things.”

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