Monday, July 31, 2006
Contractors Might Not Like Federal Spending Database on the Internet
Would federal contractors greet the prospect of imminent creation of a federal spending database on the Internet with enthusiasm or concern? Today's edition of The Washington Post quotes a financial analyst who thinks creation of the proposed Coburn-Obama database is quite feasible but could generate opposition among federal contractors.
Why? Go here to read the complete Post piece.
The Washington Post
Friday, July 28, 2006
Rough Times for Porker of the Month Tom Davis?
Rep. Tom Davis, R-VA, is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and is
an apparently softening opponent of posting all federal contract spending data on the Internet as required by the Coburn-Obama Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.
Davis has previously supported putting federal grants on an Internet database but he opposed including contracts because, he said, contracts are competitively bid and therefore public access is not needed. In fact, as many as 40 percent of all federal contracts are awarded without competitive bidding, according to some experts. Many of Davis' campaign contributors are associated with federal contractors.
In any case, Davis has recently run into an unexpected series of PR hits that may herald a rough road ahead for the long-time Virginia congressman who represents a district populated mainly by federal employees and people who work for companies that depend upon federal contracts.
Hit one came last week when The Washington Examiner editorialized on consecutive days against the $1.5 billion federal bailout earmark Davis is seeking for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Metro bus and subway system.
You can read those editorials here and here. You can also read the slashing response that erupted from Davis in response to the Examiner here. In the latter, Davis is referring in his opening paragraph to transportation expert and former federal contracting-out czar Dr. Ron Utt of The Heritage Foundation, who called the Davis Metro measure the "largest earmark" ever.
Hit number two came earlier this week when Davis was named by Citizens Against Government Waste as its Porker of the Month for his Metro bailout earmark. You can read CAGW's citation of Davis here.
Hit number three came today with a front-page story in The Washington Post detailing the relationship of Davis and a long-time friend and former business associate who employes the Virginia congressman's wife, Devolites, in a consulting firm that helps businesses gain federal contracts. Mrs. Davis works for the firm, IDG, Inc., and is a Virginia state delegate.
While the Post story doesn't contain the proverbial "smoking gun," it does contain this interesting passage that sheds some much-needed light on one of Washington's worst-kept secrets:
"Devolites Davis said her ICG work is not lobbying because she does not try to influence votes or the awarding of contracts. 'We help make connections so that folks can build relationships on their own,' she said, adding that the firm's main business is educating industry and government officials."
People who know people in government often have access by virtue of those relationships and are able to use that access to put individuals and business firms seeking federal contracts in touch with key officials in the government agencies with billions of dollars of procurements to award and administer. It is analogous to the profiting-by-access-and-relationship that former Members of Congress use as registered lobbyists when they lobby their former colleagues.
But as the Post story points out, when you call yourself a consultant and describe your business as "educating industry and government officials" in the executive branch, you don't have to register as do those who are lobbyists of the legislative branch.
Hit number four is also contained in the Post piece in form of a sidebar that highlights a former senior official in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Angela Styles, who tangled repeatedly with Davis during her tenure in the White House agency.
The sidebar notes:
"Among those opposed was the Bush administration's top procurement official, Angela B. Styles, the former chief of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget. Styles, a politically connected corporate lawyer and Bush loyalist from Texas, thought Davis's proposals would be costly and overly favorable to businesses. "In a series of speeches and testimony on Capitol Hill, Styles criticized some of the proposals, including one that would allow contractors to determine how much they were saving the government in costs and then share in those savings.
"On May 3, 2002, Styles e-mailed her boss, then-OMB chief Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.: 'David Addington [then Vice President Cheney's chief counsel] probably did the best job of summarizing Mr. Davis' legislation. . . . 'I hear the whosh of taxpayer dollars out the window.' The bill is not fiscally responsible and cannot be supported in its current form.'
"She described 13 of the legislation's 29 provisions as 'problematic' and said they would result in 'policy changes that the administration cannot support.' Among them: a plan to allow more contractors to bill the government for their 'time and materials' with no fixed cap on the total amount."
The fifth and final hit comes in an online chat among the two Post reporters who wrote the Davis piece and some interested readers, including one with this timely reminder:
"Washington, D.C.: Scott & Rob:
"Great piece, but you only scratched the surface. The trade press has well documented (although from a cheerleader perspective), Davis near total dismantlement of the procurement oversight and regulatory functions of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) at OMB. In addition, he was largely responsible for putting David Safavian in as Administrator of OFPP (Safavian's wife is Davis chief investigative counsel). There's just so much to choose from, why don't you expand your story?
"Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow: That's an interesting prospect and a good idea."
Safavian was convicted earlier this year on four counts of lying and obstruction of justice, as a result of the federal investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
33 Million Google Hits for Cheap Hair Products, Zero for Federal Spending
Excellent report from NPR's Hillary Wicai on the Senate Homeland Security Committee's passage of the Coburn-Obama Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act yesterday.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Senate Committee Approves Spending Database Bill
Here's the statement just issued by Sen. Tom Coburn:
(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - U.S. Senators Tom Coburn, M.D., R-OK, Barack Obama, D-IL, John McCain, R-AZ, and Tom Carper, D-DE, today urged the full Senate to pass S. 2590, the "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act," a bill that will create a Google-like search engine and database to track approximately $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs approved S. 2590 unanimously today. The House has already passed similar legislation that is limited to grant disclosure only.
"Passing this bill will help end the culture of secrecy in Washington and restore some measure of the public's confidence in government. Technology has made it possible, like never before, to fulfill our founders' vision of enabling all citizens to understand our nation's finances, investigate abuses and hold elected officials accountable," Dr. Coburn said, adding that a hearing being held today in the House Government Reform Committee on abuses in homeland security contracting highlights the urgent need to include contracts in the database.
"All Americans deserve to know where their money is being spent. 'Googling' the government will not only help expose and eliminate waste, but dispel misconceptions about the scope of our commitments. Many Americans, for example, assume we are spending a large percentage of our budget on foreign assistance when we are not. Whether you're on the left or right, there is no worthy argument against transparency," Obama said.
"If we're going to hold the federal government accountable for its performance, then we need to empower the public with basic information about who's receiving federal dollars and what they're doing with them. This bill will shed some much-needed light on the activities of most federal agencies, allowing the public to decide for themselves whether their tax dollars are well spent," Carper said.
During a July 18 hearing on the bill in the Federal Financial Management Subcommittee, McCain called the plan "the tool necessary to put us on track to real accountability and reform."
Support Grows for Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act as it Goes to Senate Committee Mark-up; Davis Open to Contracts
Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee are meeting today to mark-up S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL requiring the establishment of a public, searchable database of federal spending.
Among the growing list of co-sponsors of the bill are senators John McCain, R-AZ, Tom Carper, D-DE, Hillary Clinton, D-NY, Rick Santorum, R-PA, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN. Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-ME, also supports the measure and promised backers last week of a quick mark-up session today, followed by a quick reporting to the Senate floor. The goal is to get the Senate version approved on the Unanimous Consent calendar.
The Senate mark-up comes the same dxay as National Review magazine endorsed the proposal and thus joined a solid list of major daily newspapers supporting it. NR's editors lauded the proposal because:
"For the first time, it would shed some light on which companies and organizations are receiving federal money, and how much they are getting. A tool like this is a dream come true for budget hawks. Louis Brandeis famously observed that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” — and nothing needs disinfecting like the festering federal budget.
NRO's editors added that:
"Many taxpayers would be surprised and disturbed to learn how much of their money drifts quietly away to various questionable causes - Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, Alaskan bridges to nowhere, and the like. Making this information readily available to the public — and especially to the diligent denizens of the blogosphere - would encourage reform."
You can read the complete NR editorial here.
It also appears today that a major obstacle to full congressional approval is fading in importance. A House version of Coburn-Obama backed mainly by House Majority Whip Rep. Roy Blunt, R-MO., and House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-VA., includes federal grants but not federal contracts.
After initially sounding dead-set against including contracts - Davis believes they are mostly competitively bid and therefore less needful of public examination - the Virginia congressman, who represents a district populated mainly by federal civil servants and federal contractors, is now talking compromise with the Senate, according to Congressional Quarterly.
"Davis said he has softened his opposition to including contracts and does not expect that conference negotiations, should it come to that, would be difficult. 'It’s technically harder to do, but I’m not opposed to it,' Davis said.
"Davis has taken the brunt of the criticism for excluding federal contracts because his Virginia district receives so many. The 11th District ranked 17th among House districts in federal contracts received in fiscal 2004 and 2005, according to [Gary Bass of OMB Watch]. Blunt’s district ranks relatively low in both contracts and grants."
A Senate-House conference committee is unlikely to meet on the measure until after Congress returns from its August recess. If approved by President Bush with the schedule established by the Senate version, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget would be required to begin work on the database and tracking spending as of Jan. 1, 2008.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Hastert, Boehner, Drier Promise Earmark Reform When Congress Returns From August Recess
Here's the statement just issued:
Joint Statement by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA) on Congressional Earmark Reform
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The following statement was issued today by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA):
"The House-passed lobbying and ethics reform bill includes a series of significant reforms meant to bring greater transparency and accountability to the congressional earmarking practice. House Republicans are committed to extending these reforms to all committees and implementing them during the current session of Congress, before any spending or tax bill for the upcoming fiscal year goes to the President's desk.
"After Labor Day, the House is likely to consider, among other items, a number of important appropriations conference reports for the upcoming fiscal year. If the House and Senate have not produced a final lobbying and ethics reform conference report by the time we return from our August district work period in September, the House will move to immediately adopt and implement a comprehensive earmark reform rules change independent of the ongoing lobbying and ethics reform discussions to ensure these new rules apply to all spending and tax measures that will go to the President's desk this fall.
"The American people want meaningful change in the way in which Congress spends their money. House Republicans are committed to delivering this change."
Here's What Can Happen When People Tire of Waiting on Government
Which would you rather have, a FEMA double-wide or a Katrina cottage? A Mississippi firm is taking the bull by the horns. Check it out here.
Help Name a Federal Spending Database for the Internet
Just got this email from Gary Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch, which has been a tireless advocate of Sen. Tom Coburn's Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. His organization is preparing to post a private precursor to the public database of federal spending mandated by FFATA.
The new database needs a name. Something catchy that might even spark the public imagination. Here's Gary on how you can help:
"As you may know, OMB Watch is preparing to make federal contracts and grants available online in a searchable format this October. (We hope it is put out of business by the Coburn-Obama bill.).
"We have spent the last two months working at a breakneck pace to ready a server, do the needed programming, and begin developing a user friendly interface. We will start a beta test in August. (If you want to be a beta tester and have not yet told me, please let me know.)
"Now we need a name and URL that signifies the importance of this service and captures the public's imagination. We set up a one-question survey to get your thoughts on the best name at http://www.zoomerang.com
"Please visit the URL and vote for what you think is the best name. Please circulate this to others and ask them to vote on a name."
Will do, Gary.
I understand that one famous Capitol Hill Porker (who shall remain anonymous) was heard saying the right name for the public spending database is "Armageddon." (HT to Gary for correcting my spelling).
McCain Hires Hymes of Anke-Biting Pundits, but Disclosure is Delayed
Looks like Sen. John McCain's continuing campaign to appeal to the Right has advanced significantly with the hiring of Patrick Hymes of Ankle-Biting Pundits to work for Straight Talk America, one of the Arizona senator's organizations.
But even retaining one of the sharpest writers on the Right side of the Blogosphere doesn't remove the one big "but" that stands in the way of McCain's abundant ambitions - campaign finance reform and its historic abridgement of the First Amendment. Until McCain concedes the pernicious error of McCain-Feingold, I don't understand how any serious conservative or libertarian can think of supporting him for higher office.
In addition, Jim Geraghty of National Review Online's TKS adds a rich irony to the hiring of Hymes by noting the delay in the announcement of his retention for several months during which time the former CrushKerry.comer posted several pieces of effusive praise for McCain and some stiff attacks on potential rival Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
It ought to be Rule One among politically active bloggers that the financial relationship should be acknowledged whenever you post on behalf of a candidate who is paying you. Better you disclose it first than somebody else at a less opportune moment, right?
UPDATE: Comments from other Bloggers
Danny Glover at Beltway Bloggers offers his usually astute observations here, as does Tim Chapman here.
And it is worth noting this graph from Hynes comment to Geraghty:
"Obviously, everything that I write on ABP is heartfelt and sincere; everyone who knows me knows this is the case. My consulting business and my blog are two different entities (in fact, my blog isn’t even an 'entity' in the legal sense, it’s just a blog). Others who blog at ABP are - and I suspect, will remain -highly critical of Sen. John McCain at times."
Well said and true, no doubt. But the disclosure is no less essential.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
This is What I Call A Broad Base of Support!
Here's the latest compilation of organizations that have declared support for the Coburn-Obama bill to put federal spending on the Internet in a searchable database:
SUPPORTERS OF S.2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act
AIDS Healthcare Foundation
American Association of Law Libraries
American Association of People with Disabilities
American Association of Physicians and Surgeons
American Association of Small Property Owners
American Conservative Union
American Counseling Association
American Family Association
American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees
American Libraries Association
American Society of Newspaper Editors
American Tax Reduction Movement
Americans for Democratic Action
Americans for Limited Government
Americans for Prosperity
Arlington County Taxpayers Association (VA)
Ask for America
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies
California First Amendment Coalition
Capital Research Center
Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute
Center for Corporate Policy
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Individual Freedom
Charlie Guild Melanoma Foundation
Christian Coalition of America
Christian Medical Association
Citizens for Limited Taxation
Coalitions for America
Communications Workers of America
Concerned Women for America
Conservative Victory Fund
Congressional Accountability Project
Council for Citizens Against Government Waste
Council for America
Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics
Culture of Life Foundation
Drug Watch International
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Ethan Allen Institute
Evergreen Freedom Foundation
Family Research Council
Federation of American Scientists
Friends of the Earth
Government Accountability Project
Gozarks: Everything Ozarks (AR)
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
Gun Owners of America
Institute for Youth Development
Iowans for Discounted Taxes
Log Cabin Republicans
Maryland Taxpayers Association, Inc.
Methodist Healthcare Ministries
Mt. Pleasant Community Zone, Inc.
National Abstinence Clearinghouse
National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project
National Association of Evangelicals
National Congress of Vietnamese Americans
National Federation of American Hungarians
National Freedom of Information Coalition
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
National Priorities Project
National Republican Asian Assembly
National Taxpayers Union
National Wildlife Federation
Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom
NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
New York Tax Reform Org.
Project on Government Oversight
Religious Freedom Coalition
Republican Liberty Caucus
Republicans for Black Empowerment
Rio Grande Foundation (NM)
ROSE Community Development
San Diego Tax Fighters
Small Business Hawaii
Taxpayer Protection Alliance (AZ)
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers League of Minnesota
Tennessee Tax Revolt
Traditional Values Coalition
U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Wayne County Taxpayers Association (MI)Yankee Institute
Monday, July 24, 2006
Brit Paper Encourages Readers to Use Reporters' Blogs for Latest News on War Front
Here's an unexpected twist in the news - a major daily in Britain encouraging its readers to follow the latest news from the current conflict in the Middle East by reading reporters' blogs. It's in the Sun and you can read it here.
One Man's Secrecy is Another's Earmark
Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters points out a fundamental truth - secrecy in government is sometimes necessary but it is always an opportunity for somebody to do something illegal behind closed doors. Disgraced former congressman Randy Cunningham provides vivid demonstration of this truth.
Ed develops this critically important point with his latest post at Heritage's Policy Blog, where he has recently been added to the writing stable. The observation sprang from a CNN report Sunday that Cunningham used the intelligence budget's secrecy to conceal the favors he was giving and getting by having aides insert amendments in bills that would never be made public.
Cunningham resigned from Congress and is now serving a prison term after being convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes from defense contractors.
But a similar effect of secrecy frequently operates on other legislation in Congress:
"Let’s not kid ourselves that only the intelligence budget is vulnerable, however, and for the same reasons. Other appropriations bills and committee reports have the potential for billions of dollars of pork, and usually deliver on their potential.
"That the appropriations bills for Education, Agriculture, Transportation, and so on do not get classified makes their line items no less opaque to the voters. In many instances, earmarks get added without any identification as to the Representative or Senator sponsoring the spending."
And when nobody is looking over their shoulders, Members of Congress will insert thousands of earmarks into spending bills and thereby buy votes, reward friends and financial supporters and otherwise abuse the legislative process. Such corruption is encouraged by secrecy and can only be rooted out with sunshine.
But even when earmark authors are exposed, as is happenning steadily more frequently as more bloggers focus on Congress, the sheer volume of earmarks that remain makes it essential that sunshine be shining light on as much federal spending as possible, not just selected appropriations bills:
"In cases where identification occurs, the sheer volume of such earmarks makes public accountability a joke. That’s why Senator Tom Coburn’s efforts to build transparency into the federal budget should interest anyone who worries about the corrosive effect earmarks have on politics and ethics in Washington."
This fact is why Coburn's proposal has attracted such widespread support in and out of Congress, with co-sponsors in senators Barack Obama, D-IL, Tom Carper, D-DE, John McCain, R-AZ, Hillary Clinton, D-NY, Gregg, R-NH, Allen, R-VA and others. There are also nearly 100 civic and advocacy groups representing the broad expanse of the political spectrum from Left to Right lining up behind the Coburn measure.
You can read Ed's complete post on the issue on the Heritage Policy Blog here. Ed will be posting there frequently, so be sure and blogroll the site.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Blair Still Doesn't Understand
Quite a revealing observation from Jayson Blair about his likely epitaph. Revealing both about him and of a typical attitude among journalism graduates for quite a few years now, that is.
Blair says that no matter how many people he helps in his lifetime, the first line of his epitaph will refer to his fabricated news reporting at The New York Times.
I've interviewed legions of recent j-school grads and interns in the past decade and have heard the same line - "I'm becoming a journalist because I want to help people" or variations thereof -so often that I long ago wondered if anybody in the groves of academe remembers that the point of journalism is to report the news.
Everything else is ... something else.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
International Journalist Group Aids Hezbollah Terrorism Propaganda
Some may find it hard to believe but, as Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters and Bruce Kesler at Democracy-Project detail, the truth is that the International Federation of Journalists is siding with the Iranian front terrorist group Hezbollah in its attacks on Israel from Lebanon.
At the center of the controversy is the Hezbollah propaganda broadcast outfit Al-Manar, which Israel bombed during the current campaign against the terrorist group operating in Southern Lebanon.
Aidan White, the IFJ's top official, condemned Israel's actions and defended Al-Manar as a "free press" outlet. Al-Manar is owned and operated by Hezbollah. Israeli journalists demanded a retraction from White, who not only did not apologize but issued another statement condemning Israel.
Since White must know the truth about Al-Manar, it is difficult to reach any conclusion but that he intends to aid Hezbollah, or at the very least is quite willing to be allow himself and his organization to be manipulated on behalf of Hezbollah.
Ed Morrissey notes the ridiculous nature of White's description of Al-Manar:
"Al-Manar qualifies as a free press in the same manner as Hezbollah qualifies as a free-market political party. The television channel exists to broadcast terrorist propaganda. Even the EU recognizes it: they banned Al-Manar from European satellites six years ago. It has the same independent quality as Leni Riefenstahl did during the 1936 Olympics."
It will be interesting indeed to see how the U.S. and Canadian journalism unions involved with IJF react. Bruce Kesler notes that among the seven are The Newspaper Guild and the Writers Guild of America.
The European Union refused several years ago to allow Al-Manar access to satellite broadcasting facilities.
Kesler notes these North American members of the IJF:
Canada: Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP)
Canada: Fédération nationale des communications (FNC)
Canada: TNG Canada / CWA
USA: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
USA: National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981)
USA: The Newspaper Guild - CWA
USA: Writers Guild of America, East
PREDICTION: The Newspaper Guild will condemn Israel and Hezbollah, thus conveniently skirting the fundamental fact of Hezbollah's declared aim of destroying Israel and the terrorist group's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and rocketing innocent civilians in Northern Israel.
Texas Apartment Blast Caused by "Mother of Satan" Explosive
... but authorities investigating the blast that killed one man in Texas City are saying they don't think any terrorist links are involved. Jason Smith at Texas Rainmaker has the details and photos here. Yes, it reminds me of the Joel Hinrichs "suicide" using Mother of Satan to blow himself up just outside the University of Oklahoma football stadium jammed with 84,000 fans.
Now, could there be any link between the Texas City incident and this?
Think about it.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Coburn Lauds Spending Database as "Google for Government" in Hearing Statement
Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK)
What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: S. 2590, the "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006"
July 18, 2006
2006 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA. The essence of FOIA is to give average citizens access to nearly all government documents simply by asking for them, in the hope that with more information would come more accountability. But FOIA requires government staff to respond to requests for information, and as the government grew through the years, the Act has proven woefully inadequate at providing citizens timely and complete information on their government.
Today, government continues to grow at a tremendous pace: we now spend nearly $3 trillion each year to keep it running. This includes $460 billion in grants, $340 billion in contracts, and hundreds of billions more in loans, insurance and direct payments. With this kind of spending, transparency is more important now than it was when FOIA was first passed.
That is why I, along with Senators Obama, Carper, McCain, Sununu and DeMint, have introduced a bill that we believe will go a long way toward equipping citizens with the information they need.
The "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006" would require the Administration to operate a website - that anyone can access for free - disclosing every recipient of federal grants, contracts, loans and other types of assistance. This would include how much money was given and for what purpose, extending to subcontractors and subgrantees.
On the issue of tracking sub-awards - I believe it is vitally important to know where tax dollars are ultimately spent. Often times, grants and contracts are given to initial recipients, but the money ultimately goes to organizations farther down the line. I don't think it is too much for the American public to ask that if they are going to supply the money, they should know where it ultimately is spent.
I like to think of this bill as "Google for Government Spending." The concept behind the bill is really quite simple: put information on government spending out there for all to see and greater accountability will follow. It will also change the expectations of those receiving funds that they will know in advance that the information will be public.
This is not a new concept by any means, but was espoused by Thomas Jefferson, who in 1802 had this to say about the subject:
We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant's books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.
The founding fathers believed in transparency for government spending because even back when budgets were much smaller the possibility of abuse was just as real - but, with transparency comes accountability. Those who we envision using this information would be everyone from the man on the street to watchdog organizations to media outlets to government auditors. The hope of our bill is to harness the power of an eager citizenry wanting to know where tax money is spent by arming them with information.
No business or household could operate the way we do. Every entrepreneur knows that transparent accounting and budgeting information is critical to keeping the business afloat. I note that our government is not exactly "afloat" and maybe the shroud of secrecy around how money is actually spent is partly to blame.
Federal agencies have access to money and power often without the needed transparency or accountability, and so it is not a mystery why abuses occur. Without the level of transparency called for in the bill, the potential for waste and abuse is enormous. Consider the following examples of outrageous spending we have uncovered:
- Half a million dollars for a
Teapot Museumin ; Sparta, North Carolina
- Half a million dollars in Defense money for the Arctic Winter Games;
- Half a million dollars for the
Museumof Glassin ; Tacoma, Washington
- Half a million dollars for the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in
; Washinton, D.C.
- More than $2 million for the Appalachain Fruit Laboratory in
; and West Virginia
- $5 million for the St. Louis Zoo
Each of these items was buried deep within a report not readily accessible to the public or even to Members of Congress who had to vote on them. The American public should know that its Members of Congress are spending their money on these things.
Some have argued that the government already operates some databases and this bill is therefore unnecessary. Let's talk about some of those. For example, the Federal Procurement Data Base, which tracks federal contracts, does not provide details on what federal contractors are doing with the money they get nor is the system easy to use.
Or again, the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, or FAADS, which tracks grants, loans and other awards, while giving more details than FPDS, only provides quarterly data and is not easily searchable. Even the President's annual budget to Congress, which gives the most comprehensive picture of what the federal government spends is only an estimate.
OMB does not collect this information, Congress does not collect this information - nobody collects this information. The bottom line is that there is no single source of information explaining where federal money is spent, and there should be.
When I tell people about this bill, the response I usually get is "You mean, that doesn't already exist?" Most people are astounded to hear that there is not a website available now disclosing everyone who gets federal money. The idea is just so common sense that it is hard for anyone to oppose - that is, unless they've got something to hide.
As of today, the bill has been endorsed by nearly 100 organizations spanning the entire political spectrum, and under normal circumstances wouldn't be able to agree on much. Liberal and Conservative organizations have come together around this idea of "sunshine." If they can agree, so can the Congress.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today, and I want to thank them for all they've done to get us this far.
You can also read statements by senators Obama and McCain here on the Coburn subcommittee's web site.
Hillary Clinton, George Allen Sign-on as Co-Sponsors of Coburn-Obama Internet Spending Bill
Sen. George Allen, R-VA, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, have signed on as co-sponsors of S2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. Also Sen. Evan Bayh, D-ID. That may be three of the candidates seeking the White House in 2008.
Even more significant is the promise made during yesterday's hearing by Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, to move the Coburn-Obama bill through the Committee on Homeland Security as quickly as possible. Collins is chairman of the committee.
UPDATE: Christian Science Monitor coverage of hearing
Gail Russell Chaddock is known among Capitol Hill veterans as one of the top journalists covering Congress and the White House. Her report on the Coburn FFATA hearing is here.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Best of Buddies
Coburn, Obama Invite Co-Sponsors for Internet Spending Database Bill
Senators Tom Coburn, R-OK, and Barack Obama, D-IL, are circulating the following letter to Senate colleagues inviting them co-sponsor S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The bill establishes a publicly accessible and searchable database on the Internet of federal spending.
Co-Sponsor S. 2590
Thomas Jefferson: "[E]very man of any mind in the
We write to seek your support for S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. This bill would create a single, searchable website with access to virtually all government spending - a publicly-accessible online tool for all Americans to find out how their tax money is spent. As Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1802, "We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them."
According to government statistics, the federal government spends approximately $1 trillion each year on various grants, procurement contracts, and loans. However, there is currently no single searchable website or resource that provides access to information about each transaction. American taxpayers deserve better.
As various investigations into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina have shown, a lack of accountability and transparency in federal spending can lead to massive waste, fraud, and abuse. Every dollar that is wasted is a dollar that is unavailable to support our troops and veterans, improve
A massive bipartisan coalition of over 80 organizations supports the enactment of our transparency bill. Organizations across the political spectrum - from AFSCME to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, from Greenpeace to the American Conservative Union, from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to the American Family Association - have endorsed S. 2590.
A single, searchable website of federal spending information, powered by citizen investigators who need only a computer and an Internet connection, will lead to greater accountability and reduced government waste and fraud. In the age of widespread Internet use and availability, it just makes sense to provide easy-to-use access to taxpayers so they can know more about how their money is spent.
If you would like to co-sponsor this bill, please contact Sean Davis of Senator Coburn's staff at (202) 224-5754 (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Ian Solomon of Senator Obama's staff at (202) 224-2854 (email@example.com).Sincerely,
Tom Coburn, M.D. Barack Obama
United States Senator United States Senator
UPDATE: Why the War on Pork?
If you haven't read Mary Katharine Ham's piece in today's issue of The Washington Examiner, you are missing a treat. But before you click to go the Examiner web site, go to Mary Katharine's Townhall.com blog and check out her on the topic, too. The lady is no-nonsense!
How to Create 10,000 Citizen Auditors Looking for Waste and Fraud - Put Federal Spending on the Internet
I'll be testifying today before before Sen. Tom Coburn's Senate subcommittee concerning his proposal to require the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to begin putting federal spending on a searchable public database on the Internet. The proposal is S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.
Senate co-sponsors Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL, and Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, are scheduled to testify first, followed by my panel, which will also include Gary Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch, a liberal advocacy group, and Eric Brenner, Director of the Governor's Grants Office in Maryland.
My testimony deals with the impact of FFATA on new and old media, while Bass provides a detailed explanation of the challenges involved in creating such a database that would be truly comprehensive, easy to use and accurate. Brenner will deal with challenges in tracking federal spending that goes through state and local governments (it's much more difficult than you might think).
If you would like to watch the hearing, I understand it is being broadcast here. Also, Captain's Quarters may be live-blogging the hearing.
Here's the full text of my testimony for the record. I'll post the testimonies of Bass and Brenner later today. The usual procedure at congressional hearings is for witnesses to provide a verbal summary of the testimony, followed by questions from members of the subcommittee. Only the really important people get to actually read their full statements! :-)
Testimony before Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security
July 18, 2006
Editorial Page Editor,
Tapscott's Copy Desk blog
One of the most frequently visited web sites on the Internet is OpenSecrets.org, the web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. At OpenSecrets.org, any citizen can easily find a list of all the campaign donors to his congressman or senator, as well as detailed lists of expenditures by the incumbent office holder's campaign committee. The same information can be found on the site for congressional challengers, presidential candidates, political action committees and 527 committees. Donations by individuals are available on the web site, along with detailed lists of all donors within a particular state or zip code. The data is broken out by industry, by lobbying firms and by individual lobbyists. There are incidentally 242 individual lobbyists with the last name of "Smith."
In short, voluminous information about campaign finances is available within a few mouse clicks to anybody with an internet connection and a laptop. You don't have to have a PhD in statistical analysis or be a computer software jockey in order to make use of the data on OpenSecrets.org because the data is helpfully organized behind a "front end" that does most of the heavy searching labor for users.
Campaign finance data has been readily available on the Internet for only a couple of decades and OpenSecrets.org is no longer the only web site where one can find such data on the Internet. But OpenSecrets.org was the first and it led the way in bringing about an information revolution in politics and the news media. In politics, for all practical purposes there is no such thing as an anonymous donor. Individual citizens can see in minute detail the financial and special interest support behind federal candidates and then use that information in deciding how to vote.
As I mentioned, OpenSecrets.org is one of the most popular web sites, but the influence of easy access to campaign data extends far beyond web visitors. The news media has also undergone massive changes as a result of the availability of campaign finance data. Political reporting has been tremendously enhanced, of course, and detailed analyses of a candidate's donors and the expenditures of his campaign committee have become standard stories.
But the scope and depth of investigative reporting in general about the day-to-day operation of government at all levels has been tremendously expanded by access to campaign finance data. Before, investigative journalists were often unable to trace the frequently complex links among office holders, corporate or special interests, lobbyists and legislative and executive branch management actions and decisions. Without an inside source, it was usually impossible, which meant countless stories that could have exposed waste, fraud and other forms of corruption went unreported.
Today, hardly a day goes by that legions of journalists aren't asking tough questions of politicians, contractors, lobbyists and campaign officials, based upon information gleaned at least in part from campaign finance data. Investigative teams of journalists are poring over reams of campaign finance data as part of their coverage of the 2006 congressional races. It is no exaggeration to say that every daily newspaper in
The widespread access to campaign finance data is part of a more comprehensive and healthy explosion in recent years of publicly available data from government and private sources concerning virtually every major public policy issue. The federal government is the largest source of such data. Go to the Internet and you can fairly easily find and download data from government agencies showing how many firms received OSHA safety inspections last year and what the results were, the quality of health care provided in nursing homes in every state, how many taxpayers filed returns indicating estates worth more than $600,000, the number of maintenance operations that have been conducted on a specific commercial airliner from its first day of flying, how many people moved from California to Arizona or Nevada, the number of jobs created in Omaha last month and on and on. We live in a veritable ocean of data.
But nowhere to be seen on that ocean is an easily accessible web site where citizens can find out such basic information as how much money the government paid to which companies last year to deliver food and supplies to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintain suitable office space for thousands of federal employees, teach remedial reading to free-lunch kids in Baltimore city or advise senior executives in the regional offices of a government agency on how to make the best use of their new information technology systems.
Some of that kind of data is available through databases like the Consolidated Federal Funds Report and the Federal Awards Assistance Data System. But these resources are practically useless for the layman who doesn't know how to use a database manager like Microsoft Access. The CFFR covers one area of federal spending, while FAADS covers another, but it is virtually impossible for the two databases to "talk to each other" because they are structured so differently.
Consequently, very little comprehensive daily reporting is seen that focuses on the details of federal spending. Analyzing the federal budget and the spending of a particular agency is at best an arcane exercise even for veteran journalists. Only a very tiny number of journalists have the expertise and professional opportunities to even think about such reporting. Instead, they must rely on inside information that typically focuses on a particular program, contract or official, or an Inspector-General report or GAO audit. The result is we get anecdotal stories about bridges to nowhere in Alaska that would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars but we never read comprehensive, detailed reporting about the ins and outs of the estimated $300 billion the government will pay thousands of contractors literally around the globe - nearly half selected non-competitively - to purchase everything from legal advice to industrial zinc.
That will all change with passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. Making federal spending data easily accessible will have even more effects on the news media than did the availability of campaign finance data.
I believe the federal spending database required to be established by FFATA will reinvigorate the routine coverage of government at all levels in the nation's daily newspapers because getting the information needed for such coverage will become much easier. If the database allows users to search and filter spending information at such elementary levels as by state and by category of activity, every reporter covering basic beats like schools, crime, the environment and transportation will incorporate information from the database in their stories on a regular basis. With so much more information available about federal spending on these beats, there will soon be more reporting on the effectiveness of federal programs. Just as reporting on the special interests giving contributions to candidates has become a familiar and standard part of political reporting in virtually all daily newspapers, so will reporting on who receives federal tax dollars and how they spend those funds will become a frequent feature of reporting on most public policy issues.
The impact on investigative journalism will be even greater. Just as having campaign finance data available has strengthened the ability of journalists to trace the links between office-holders, candidates and lobbyists, having comprehensive federal spending data available will strengthen the ability of journalists to uncover the legions of consultants, Beltway Bandits and other special interests that thrive on federal spending that goes on year after year after year regardless of the effectiveness of the programs.
If traditional mainstream media organizations pursue this new field of reporting aggressively, it could help restore the image of journalists, which currently ranks right down there with used car salesmen and Members of Congress.
As positive a development as that would be, I believe the effect of the FFATA federal spending database would be even more significant on new media, especially the Blogosphere. As you know, bloggers are fulfilling an increasingly important role in the American public policy arena, often providing detailed news and analyses before mainstream media outlets are able to do so. There are millions of bloggers and their ranks are growing at an amazing rate.
In many respects, the Blogosphere's collective capacity to cover a news event or issue vastly outweighs that of the mainstream media, if only because the Internet enables what New Yorker magazine columnist James Surowiecki calls "the wisdom of crowds." That is, the simultaneous focus of the knowledge, experience and analytical skills of hundreds or thousands of people on a particular problem or question. Or as Surowiecki succinctly puts it, no one of us is as intelligent as all of us.
The immense power of the Blogosphere was most vividly seen during the 2004 presidential campaign in the hours following the broadcast of now-former CBS News anchor Dan Rather's "60 Minutes" report on President Bush's National Guard service. The Rather report was based on a set of documents allegedly written by National Guard leaders during Bush’s service. Those documents suggested Bush had received special treatment by the National Guard, a fact, which if widely believed by voters so late in the campaign, could quite conceivably have affected the outcome of the election.
But within hours of the CBS broadcast, bloggers located experts with the most arcane of knowledge about the kinds of type faces used by National Guard typewriters when Bush was in uniform. Those experts and other analytical skills brought to bear by bloggers demonstrated conclusively that the Rather documents were forgeries. We all know the rest of that story.
It is easy to imagine what will happen when that same power of the wisdom of crowds is applied to the details of federal spending made available through the FFATA database. We've already been given a glimpse of things to come with the Porkbusters effort among bloggers, led by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit and N.Z. Bear of The Truth Laid Bear. The nation first learned about the scandal of earmarks and the congressional culture of corruption symbolized by the Bridges to Nowhere largely as a result of Porkbusters bloggers who led the way in publicizing Sen. Coburn's efforts in Congress and in digging out new details on specific earmarks such as the Railroad to Nowhere in Mississippi.
But think of what will happen when there are thousands of Porkbusters examining the details of federal spending. Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters blog puts it this way:
"The real value in this database will come not just from exposing line-item spending to the mainstream media, but from exposing it to all of the taxpayers equally. I predict that 10,000 blogs will be born just to focus on the spending habits of their own representatives. Constituents can use their computers to do their own research on the types of spending that their Congressmen and Senators sponsor.
"How many Bridges to Nowhere will survive that kind of scrutiny? How many politicians will earmark money for federal highways that bring heavy traffic to property that they themselves own if they know that anyone can look it up at any time and make the connections?"
If anything, I think Ed might be underestimating the number of bloggers who will use the federal spending database made possible by FFATA. I have no doubt there will be many, perhaps hundreds of blogs created specifically to analyze and track federal spending within specific issue areas and industries. These blogs will be associated with private citizens, non-profit advocacy groups and even consultants and executives with companies bidding for federal contracts.
The result will be a vastly more well-informed citizenry, a public policy debate informed by much more accurate and extensive knowledge of government policies and programs and a more effective targeting of our society's resources. Just as politicians and political campaign professionals soon learned they could not afford to ignore OpenSecrets.org, I have no doubt that politicians, government contractors and lobbyists will soon learn that they cannot ignore blogs made possible by FFATA, at least one of which will probably be called something like SpendingSecrets.org.
Thank you again for this opportunity to testify and I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.