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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

PORKBUSTERS UPDATE: Coburn Amendment to Require Public Disclosure of DHS Reports to Senate Appropriators

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, is preparing an amendment to be offered later this week for the Department of Homeland Security appropriation bill requiring public disclosure of all reports the department is told to produce by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The measure is Amendment 4561. It is not likely to put smiles on the faces of committee chairman Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, of "Railroad to Nowhere" fame or the many other Old Bulls who are on the panel, including Sen. Ted Stevens, R-AK, of "Bridges to Nowhere" fame.

A copy of the amendment and Coburn's Senate presentation on the proposal was obtained by Tapscott's Copy Desk.

Coburn is zeroing in on a classic Washington spending gambit in which congressional appropriators order executive branch officials to spend money on a program, contractor or project that benefits one or more Members of Congress. Quite often, the executive branch officials involved are opposed to the spending, sometimes for solid reasons and other times for less-than-honest purposes.

In this particular case, the Appropriations panel required DHS to prepare more than 40 reports on key aspects of the department's many operations, as well as detailed justifications of White House DHS budget proposals, how funding was spent in previous years and future agency priorities.

Such reports are not readily available to the public or even to Members of Congress who are not members of the Appropriations Committee. But consider the scolding the Appropriations Committee gave DHS when officials there combined information from the mandated reports for public release:

"The Committee is deeply disappointed in the actions taken by the department to .... release the results of those reports publicly, prior to submission to the Committee. Reports to the Committee are not expected to be turned into publicity events again in the future."

Translated: Don't even think about trying it again next year, buster!

Coburn's amendment would require the DHS reports mandated by the Appropriations Committee to be made public within 48 hours of their being delivered to the Committee, except those portions of the reports containing information that could compromise national security.

The Oklahoma senator believes the reports should be available to all Members of Congress, not just those on the appropriations panels, and to the general public because limiting availability "reinforces the culture that has led to the earmark 'favor' factory reputation of the Appropriations Committees, unaccountable decision-making, spending on dubious projects, authorizing on appropriations bills and other headline grabbing misuses of federal funds."

Coburn's amendment is significant because DHS is not the only federal department ordered by the Appropriations Committee to provide reports that aren't necessarily available to other Members of Congress, journalists or the public.

Coburn will tell the Senate when he offers the amendment about his experience as chairman of the Senate Federal Financial Management Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. He asked all executive branch departments and agencies for copies of reports they were required to do by congressional appropriators.

Coburn says getting those reports was, to use an Oklahoma collogialism, "like pulling hens' teeth" because, among other obstacles, many executive branch officials feared making the appropriators on Capitol Hill angry:

"After much prodding, most agencies did agree to deliver the justifications. Several actually only did so after obtaining the 'permission' from the Appropriations Committees first (DHS was among the quickest to provide the Department’s justifications)," Coburn will tell the Senate.

But he will also point out this fact to his colleagues:

"While the Subcommittee eventually received the documents that were provided to the Appropriations Committee, we did so in a manner that the public would not be able to do. It required a massive amount of staff time and effort to extort these documents."

And even getting the reports, Coburn was dismayed to find that "many Members of Congress are not even aware that these documents exist and few are likely to have actually read them despite the fact that they contains detailed explanations of the operations, priorities and goals of every department."

Coburn will suggest to his colleagues the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this experience:

"The only conclusion one can draw from how difficult it is to obtain the justifications of the Departments’ budget justifications is that the budget requests are NOT justifiable, or that there is something being kept hidden from the public, the media and Members of Congress. The same is true of the other reports that DHS and other Departments are directed to provide to the Appropriations Committees in the annual spending bills."

One possible explanation for why congressional appropriators are so reluctant to allow the media or the public to get too-easy access to the reports is found in one of the documents required of DHS, an analysis of the aging LORAN navigation system.

LORAN uses radio signals to locate the position of a ship or other moving object. There are 24 LORAN facilities across the U.S., notably including six in Sen. Stevens' homestate of Alaska. Here's what DHS was told to include in the report:

"The report shall include an analysis of the costs and benefits of the LORAN system, the merits of maintaining the LORAN system as a back-up navigational aid, and the benefits of using the LORAN system in conjunction with the Global Positioning System."

Do you get the impression the Appropriations Committee wants to keep spending on LORAN and expects a report to whitewash that spending? The government has spent more than $160 million on updating LORAN since 1997, but the departments of defense, homeland security and Transportation have all said LORAN is out-dated and obsolete

Indeed, executive branch officials contend LORAN is "no longer needed as a positioning, navigation or timing aid for military use" and "is not needed as a back-up navigation aid for aviation users," according to Coburn. The Maritime and Railroad administrations reached the same conclusion for their industries.

Even so, it appears, according to Coburn, that the Appropriations Committee seeks to spend another $300 million updating LORAN in the next decade. Among other things, doing so will keep those LORAN facilities - including the six in Alaska - up and functioning.

And guess who authored the provision directing DHS to prepare the report on the benefits of keeping LORAN up and running? Yep, the same Ted Stevens who threatened last year to resign if the Senate dared stop funding his pet projects like the Bridges to Nowhere.

UPDATE: Coburn on Senate floor today

Coburn will be on the Senate floor at 10:30 a.m. today and may offer the DHS Reports Sunshine amendment. If he does, the amendment will:

  • Require all earmarks and directives to be included in the final bill language to be considered as being passed by both chambers of Congress.
  • Require public disclosure of all reports provided to Congress and the department budget briefings on the DHS web site.
  • Cuts $25 million from DHS's Demonstration Training Grants program.
  • Prohibits funding for the continuation of the outdated LORAN navigational system.
  • Directs $1 million in additional funding to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer for the purpose of complying with the Improper Payments Information Act of 2002.
Stay tuned! More to come this morning.