Case for transparent government is open and shut

Posted: Aug 25, 2006 3:24 PM

How good is government at wasting our tax dollars? Consider the Department of Homeland Security.

It's not yet five years old, but it's already experienced at throwing away cash. A recent congressional report found that 32 DHS contracts "experienced significant overcharges, wasteful spending or mismanagement." Federal credit cards were used to buy beer-brewing equipment and iPods. Tax money was squandered on luxury hotels and "training" sessions at golf and tennis resorts.

Altogether, those contracts cost the government -- meaning you and me -- $34 billion. Sadly, a lot of that was wasted.

DHS says it can solve the problems -- if it can hire more inspectors. "We need more," Elaine Duke, the DHS chief procurement officer, told lawmakers. "We have an increase coming in the current '07 budget of about 200 additional [workers], and we are working towards needing even more over time."

But the answer isn't to hire more bureaucrats to supervise what the current bureaucrats are doing. There's a simpler, cheaper and more permanent solution: Allow 300 million Americans to review how government spends our money.

That's the idea behind the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, a measure co-sponsored by an unlikely duo: conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and liberal Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), with strong support from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to build an easy-to-use Web database containing detailed information about all the grants and contracts the federal government hands out. This database would allow virtually anyone to see how much money a federal program received and how it spent that money. And, to ensure that public oversight is timely, information about spending would, by law, have to be posted within 30 days of when Congress authorized the money.

"It shouldn't matter if you think government ought to spend more money or less money," Obama said. "We can all agree that government ought to spend money efficiently. If government money can't withstand public scrutiny, then it shouldn't be spent."

That makes sense to most people. That's why the bill has 29 co-sponsors, including staunch liberals, determined conservatives and self-professed moderates. Small wonder it has moved through the legislative process at what amounts to lightning speed.

The bill was introduced in early April and already has been passed by a committee (the step in the process where senators usually bottle up controversial bills) and placed on the Senate's legislative calendar. But one senator doesn't like it. And that may be enough to derail it, because he (or she) has put a hold on it. A secret hold. How's that for irony -- a secret hold on an open-government bill?

It may not stay that way for long, though. The watchdog group Porkbusters,, is trying to smoke out the offender. It's urging constituents to call their senators and push them to disavow the hold. Senators who go on record against the hold are "removed from the suspect list."

Obama and I disagree on many things. But he's right about this. The United States needs more openness in government, so anyone and everyone can review how Uncle Sam spends our tax money. Good government shouldn't be held hostage by secret holds.

Lawmakers have the right -- indeed, the responsibility -- to block legislation they consider bad. But they should always do so publicly, identifying themselves and explaining their actions.

If senators aren't willing to block a bill publicly, they should allow the bill to move forward. That's how good government works: Everyone should know what it's up to. At the end of the day, that's the best way to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse.