Congress lifts blinds on its spending
After 2005's bribery and corruption scandals, Congress moves to list US federal expenditures on a searchable database.
WASHINGTON — Coming soon to a laptop near you: how government is spending your federal tax dollars – contracts, grants, and special projects sought by lawmakers.
From wartime contracts for Halliburton to earmarks for the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center (think "famous groundhog") in Pennsylvania, all will be listed on a searchable database.
It's the least controversial of all the reforms Congress has considered since last year's bribery and corruption scandals, and its passage will provide an effective new tool for anyone wanting to look over lawmakers' shoulders soon after they clear spending bills.
"This is an extraordinary step for Congress to take, because it will put government information into the hands of millions of citizens who use the Internet as a source of information," says Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a public-interest group that promotes transparency in government. "The notion of government information on the Internet in the 21st-century ought to be a no-brainer."
It took a mobilization of bloggers and citizen groups to break secret holds placed on the bill in the Senate, where the bill passed unanimously Sept. 7. It was expected to clear the House after press time Thursday with broad bipartisan support.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma and Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, requires the White House Office of Management & Budget to maintain a database on some $1 trillion in US spending. New entries will be logged within 30 days of funds being disbursed. Senate majority leader Bill Frist last week credited the "blogosphere" for saving the bill.
"This can be a very powerful tool in the hands of citizens," says Stephen Ellis, vice president of programs for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington. "It will be the gold standard of information for debates over whether this is worthwhile spending or not."
Since last March, when former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California was convicted of taking bribes, Congress has struggled to find agreement on how to reform ethics and lobbying rules, without success. The big lobby-reform bills remain deadlocked between the House and Senate.
The next battle, expected in the House Thursday, is over how much members of Congress and the public will know about the earmarks tacked onto spending bills before they come up for a vote. Sensing rising public objection to earmarks, appropriators in the House and Senate have instituted their own procedural reforms for fiscal year 2007 spending bills.
For example, appropriators are limiting the number of projects members can propose, as well as making the projects more visible to the public earlier in the process. In the House, member requests for projects this year declined 37 percent, or about $7.5 billion, from last year. House appropriators are also often requiring a local spending match for some economic-development earmarks, a move they say will discourage frivolous projects.
"We were getting about 25 requests per member. Now it's an average of 10," says John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. "It helps us to do better oversight and weed out the bad ones." In addition, House appropriators say they will avoid adding earmarks when House and Senate conferees reconcile two versions of a spending bill – a source of abuse in the past.
While Appropriations Committee members have borne much of the criticism for earmarking, the practice exists in other committees as well. Congress included 6,373 earmarks in the last highway bill, amounting to $24.2 billion. The recent Water Research Development Act included 250 earmarks at a cost of $11 billion. As of press time, the House version of earmark reform still applied mainly to the Appropriations Committee.
"There ought to be a blanket provision with respect to earmarks – whether on taxes, healthcare, defense, or appropriations," says Ms. Miller.
Still, reformers say the searchable database is a key first step. "We see this like the battle in the Pacific in World War II: You take one island at a time," says John Hart, spokesman for Senator Coburn.
Critics, though, note that even the Coburn transparency reform doesn't get to the root of the problem. "The information comes 30 days after the funds are spent. That's about 60 days too late," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information here. "We still lack an objective assessment of the spending."
A done deal
The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, already approved by the Senate, was expected to clear the House on Wednesday. It does the following:
• Creates a database that names recipients and dollar amounts of most federal grants, contracts, and loans. These will be searchable online and available to the public.
• Identifies so-called pork-barrel projects, or earmarks, in the searchable database. The database will not necessarily name lawmakers who added an earmark, but it will reveal the congressional district where the federal money will go.
• Gives the White House Office of Management & Budget the job of managing the online database.
The House is wrangling over a rule change that would do the following:
• Identify lawmakers adding earmarks to bills – in advance of a vote on the bill. In dispute is whether the rule change applies just to Appropriations Committee members or to other committees.