A movement toward greater openness and transparency in government spending is sweeping the country. It began last year with federal legislation to create a website with a publicly searchable database of all federal grants and awards. This year it has taken hold at the state level, with similar measures moving in at least 17 state legislatures. These initiatives have broad bipartisan support and few public opponents, although it remains to be seen whether they can overcome entrenched special interests and be enacted into law.
Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. Traditional budget publications are often very difficult for experts — let alone ordinary taxpayers — to understand. Additionally, they frequently are inaccessible and incomplete. In contrast, modern, searchable, online databases would use technology familiar to most taxpayers to create accountability and openness.
This is a nonpartisan, good-government movement. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, sponsored by senators Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Barack Obama (D., Ill.), guarantees the existence and operation of a single, searchable website from the Office of Management and Budget. This site, now available at www.FederalSpending.gov, will be fully operational by the end of the year, and its official debut could mark the beginning of a new era.
Clearly, if taxpayers can easily discover where and how their money is being spent, state and federal governments will be more accountable, resulting in a reduction of waste, fraud, and abuse. In contrast, the current opaque spending process creates the perception (often a reflection of reality) of legislators and bureaucrats using budgets to fund unnecessary, wasteful, or even corrupt programs with impunity.
Without question, spending databases will help eliminate any perception of impropriety since all government spending will be subject to public scrutiny. Even in the absence of perceived wrongdoing, these databases will allow taxpayers to review exactly how their tax money is being spent and to propose more effective or efficient uses of their tax dollars. By making the details of spending available to the public, federal and state governments can leverage the expertise and ideas of engaged citizens who can provide feedback to legislators and grassroots groups that work on fiscal issues.
Transparent government is good government. And government should have nothing to hide from the taxpayers who fund it.
Guided by these first principles, several taxpayer advocacy groups have created the Show Me the Spending Coalition, which is dedicated to promoting online transparency databases at the state level. The coalition has set up a clearinghouse of information at ShowMeTheSpending.org, which details the transparency efforts being made in each state. The site also helps direct legislators and citizens in the states that have yet to join the national trend toward spending transparency.
We live in a democracy in which political power emanates not from the top down, but from the bottom up — from the people. And in order for the people to make informed decisions on how they are governed, they need access to accurate and complete information about where their tax dollars are going. Today, technology allows governments to communicate with the people at a level of detail never before possible, and it is now incumbent upon state legislatures to make that possibility a reality.
– Phil Kerpen is policy director for Americans for Prosperity, a founding member of the Show Me the Spending Coalition.