Politics & Policy

Fresh Air Fund

For the average citizen, trying to see how the federal government spends money can be a baffling experience. Even journalists and think tankers, who are supposed to specialize in government oversight, have trouble getting a handle on the massive volume of cash that flows from federal coffers. The main reason for this is that there’s currently no system for assimilating, organizing, and releasing information on the hundreds of billions of tax dollars that are spent each year on federal grants and contracts. This lack of disclosure is absurd.

The good news is that the Senate is considering a bill to fix this problem. The even better news is that the bill has drawn bipartisan support. Sponsored by Republican Tom Coburn, and cosponsored by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Rick Santorum, the measure would create a searchable online database of federal grant and contract recipients. The Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is set to take up the bill today, and supporters believe it will clear the Senate by the end of the year.

Staffers on Capitol Hill are calling the proposed database a “Google-like tool for federal accountability.” 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. 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.

Many liberals support the creation of this database because they believe in government oversight — especially for contract recipients like Halliburton — and they also believe that most taxpayers will only want more government services once they find out more about them. But there is a precedent for this type of oversight tool, and it should encourage optimism among conservative budget-cutters. After the Environmental Working Group created its online farm-subsidies database in 2001, a wave of outrage over the glut of unjustifiable spending began to spread. Members of Congress felt the pressure from watchdog groups and the press, and this significantly changed the terms of the debate in Washington. The Coburn bill promises to have a similar effect.

The idea of a database has been picking up steam on Capitol Hill. The House has already passed a similar proposal by Republicans Tom Davis and Roy Blunt. Their version would create a public database for federal grants but exclude federal contracts. There is some reason to think it might be best to separate contracts and grants into separate databases, to avoid suggesting a false equivalence between the two. Contractors typically go through a competitive-bidding process and then have to provide a service, whereas grant recipients are simply given funding after being deemed worthy by appropriators. In general, however, there is wide agreement in favor of opening up both grants and contracts to more public oversight.

In the Senate, Republican John Ensign is sponsoring an alternative version of the Coburn bill that would create an even more extensive database. It would require recipients of federal grants and contracts to itemize their expenditures, with the aim of allowing even more detailed scrutiny. While the intention behind this bill is admirable, it suffers from impracticality: The disclosure requirements might place an undue burden on many grant and contract recipients, and threaten to erode congressional support.

Passage of a practical database bill would be an important victory in the battle to control federal spending. It would bring about a systematic, strategic advantage — rather than just an isolated triumph — for proponents of spending cuts. While it isn’t enough by itself to restore sensible spending to Washington, it would strongly encourage lawmakers to exercise integrity in their oversight of the federal purse. Let the sunlight in.

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