A move to lift the veil on US spending

A huge database of all contracts, grants, and appropriations is one idea gaining traction in the Senate.

After a nearly fruitless long war to rein in wasteful government spending, the Senate's most relentless pork-busters are trying a new tack: unleash the energies – and ire – of 10,000 bloggers.

The answer to budgetary obfuscation, these senators say, is sunlight. They propose to list all federal spending on one easy-to-access website, saying it will be simpler for ordinary citizens to see where tax dollars are going – and to shame lawmakers into being more accountable.

Spending on the troops at a time of war, no problem. But $1.5 million to a liquor store in Los Angeles? Or $1.4 million to a car wash in Anaheim, Calif.? How about $1.1 million to a pizza shop, $1.5 million to a wine institute, and $227,000 to a strawberry commission?

All are examples of federal subsidies awarded in California last year. If you know how to use the already-available Federal Assistance Award Data System, you'd be able to dig them up yourself, but only for a single year. The senators' system would allow online users to search for all the US contracts, grants, or other payments made, for example, to Enron or Halliburton over a decade.

"It seemed an obscure issue when I first heard it, but it could be revolutionary," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank here.

The proposed law – cosponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware, and John McCain (R) of Arizona – directs the White House Office of Management and Budget to create a website showing all recipients of federal grants, contracts, and other payments. It must be free, easy to search, and accessible to the public, they say.

A researcher's trove

Congressional staff and the cottage industry of government watchdog groups can't begin to do the research that would be readily available on such a database, Senator Coburn said Tuesday at a hearing on the proposed Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.

"We need help doing oversight," said Senator Obama, who testified at the hearing. "This will empower citizens and organizations."

Senator McCain, who also spoke at Tuesday's hearing, said: "It will be a caution to people who want to appropriate money not for useful purposes."

In the past, the bid to check government spending has focused on so-called pork projects – lawmaker-sponsored earmarks, usually attached to an appropriations bill, that inflate the cost of government.

Every new fiscal year brings its list of projects tagged with the "pork" label, such as a $320 million earmark for Alaska's "bridge to nowhere," or the $500,000 appropriation for a Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C. In all, Congress added more than $29 billion pork projects in the FY 2006 budget, up from $27.2 billion in FY 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, which sifts through appropriations bills every year looking for earmarks.

But the full range of government spending is broader. The federal government pays out some $500 billion in goods and services each year. It gives another $500 billion to public and private groups and individuals.

The Coburn bill puts all this spending into a single database.

"It would allow any journalist – and small-town journalist – to investigate what their representatives are doing in a lot more detail than now. It would empower the bloggers," says the Cato Institute's Mr. Edwards.

House (sort of) likes it, too

A limited version of this bill has already cleared the House. Sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, it amends a 1999 law to require that all federal grants be made available to the public on a free website within 30 days of enactment. An existing database of federal grants is available only to members of Congress.

"There is no central database of all entities receiving federal funds, including the nearly 30,000 organizations that are awarded nearly $300 billion in federal grants each year," said Mr. Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

While supporting the bill, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, the committee's ranking Democrat, urged including a database of government contracts. Last month, Mr. Waxman released a report on the "shadow government" of companies working under federal contract. The number of contracts awarded without competitive bidding has "exploded in size" over the past five years, it stated. "Far more taxpayer dollars now go to contracts than to grants," Waxman said.

More than 80 groups back the Senate version of this bill, ranging from the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union to Greenpeace.

"There is a good chance of getting this bill done this year," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group promoting government accountability. "The current government systems to provide access to this information simply don't work."

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