Politics & Policy

The Transparency Revolution Is Just Starting

(Dreamstime image: Canonphotolife)
Online accountability for government spending grows ever more vital to American democracy.

During the ten years I was privileged to serve Oklahoma in the United States Senate, the one question I heard most often from voters was: “What can I as a private citizen do to fix Washington?”

Patriotic Americans in both political parties have asked me this question for years at town halls, in airports, and even in the line at the grocery store. The 2016 election campaign proves that voters are more frustrated than ever at the slow-to-nonexistent pace of change in Washington.

This month we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the enactment of a law that provides at least a partial answer to this question.

In 2006, I joined then-senator Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Tom Carper (D., Del.) in introducing the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) — a bill we called “Google your government.”

Our idea was to create a website that would allow every American with an Internet connection to track how the federal government does its business. The website would help root out egregious spending, save taxpayers money, and, ultimately, make government more accountable and efficient for all Americans. Though we encountered stiff opposition, our transparency bill did become law, thanks to the efforts of concerned Americans and online activists. Today, as a result, anyone can go to USAspending.gov to access information on how the federal government is spending our tax dollars in a level of detail that I was denied as a United States senator.

In the years that followed, hundreds of billions of dollars of waste, fraud, and abuse have been uncovered using this tool. From spending on animals on treadmills to sheep in microgravity, legislative researchers, reporters, and everyday citizens have used this site in ways far beyond even our wildest imaginations. In some instances, it has been used to stop programs before any damage could be done.

Concerned citizens are no longer captive to a Congress that ignores its basic role in overseeing federal programs.

Recently, the Foundation to Restore Accountability, a nonpartisan nonprofit I co-founded to encourage younger Americans to be more involved in government decision-making, held a contest to see who could find the most egregious spending items using this online tool. Some of the findings included $500,000 spent at a five-star Colorado ski resort, an $8 million NASCAR team sponsored by the Border Patrol, and almost $300,000 for documenting the origins of hip-hop. Shedding light on wasteful projects is the first step to enacting greater reform and holding Washington accountable.

In addition, Open the Books, a nonpartisan group devoted to putting “every dime online in real time,” used the transparency database to create a mobile app that allows you to find government waste in real time using your current GPS location. Openthebooks.com has taken the power of this tool and placed it in the hand of every American. Open the Books has already used the database to find egregious art purchases at the VA, unnecessary firearm and ammunition purchases by civilian agencies, and taxpayer subsidies for luxury-car dealerships.

I believe we are seeing just a small glimpse of the potential of what this online database can expose. Concerned citizens are no longer captive to a Congress that ignores its basic role in overseeing federal programs. Indeed, we can do the work ourselves and shame our representatives into acting.

#related#Still, the battle for transparency is not over. In fact, it’s just starting. We must demand that Congress take the next logical step in making federal spending completely transparent. It is time for hidden spending in the tax code, tax credits, and other special-interest tax benefits to be included in the USAspending.gov database. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. The public has already called on Washington to create transparency within the tax code, and the issue has even received attention from the presidential candidates.

Congress has more work to do to make this tool live up to its full potential, but we must embrace the power we now have at our fingertips — power that even our own senators or representatives didn’t have just ten years ago. 

Happy birthday to USAspending.gov, and more importantly, happy hunting to those using the site. 

— Tom Coburn, a former U.S. senator and representative from Oklahoma, is the founder of the Foundation to Restore Accountability and the honorary chairman of OpenTheBooks.com.

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