Last night the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act passed both Houses of Congress on voice votes. This is a great victory for transparency in government and for the beginning of the end to the "Closed Door" government. Contracts and grants will be listed in this online searchable database so that all Americans can keep track of the government's spending. I certainly hope that transparent government will help reduce the distrust in government that exists among such a large portion of America. As Sen. Tom Coburn's website reads: "Transparency is the foundation of all accountability." But this victory, one that is especially sweet for the online community, should not be claimed to be something that it is not.
There’s an interesting story from Bloomberg News today on a shift toward Democrats in political giving this year by Wall Street. The story, by Michael Forsythe and George Stein, cites donation totals from 11 top securities firms, showing $3.1 million going to Democrats in this year’s congressional elections versus only $1.9 million to Republicans.
Bloomberg is certainly well plugged in on Wall Street and the story features interesting quotes from industry insiders. But if you read the story and got the impression that there’s been a real sea change on Wall Street, you’d be wrong.
The Sunlight Network -- our sister 501 c 4 organization -- was launched yesterday with great fanfare. You should check some of the initial ways we hope to create a network of citizens who are engaging in accountability work. There's a pretty neat new project you can find there that you can work on immediately. We also launched a social networking site for Sunlighters -- the commmunity of folks who want to work with us on a regular basis. The primary purpose of that site is to provide a useful forum for distributed research and activism -- to figure out together the kinds of things it makes sense to work on jointly. It enables individuals to connect one on one, as groups, and work collectively on projects. Think of it as MySpace for people who want to demand more transparency from lawmakers.
Update: The bill passes and the Senate agrees, next stop President Bush's desk.
The House version of the Coburn-Obama online contracts and grants database is set to pass today. Sen. Tom Coburn's office just sent out an announcement that Coburn, Sen. Barack Obama, Rep. Roy Blunt, Rep. Tom Davis, and OMB Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson will "pledge immediate action to implement the grants and contracts database included in the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act." This news conference will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow in room HC-7 of the Capitol. Kudos to all groups and bloggers that have supported this bill and continue to push for greater transparency in Congress.
The House will consider a new rule tomorrow that will make earmarking a much more transparent process. The rule (found here at the Rules Committee homepage) would require that all bills, coming from all Committees, must list each and every earmark including the member's name making the request. This will apply to all legislation and will also apply to all committee reports and conference committee reports. Tim Chapman notes that the vote will be close tomorrow and that appropriators "(of course) have problems with the legislation." Hopefully the online effort that helped make earmarking and transparency an issue that Congressional leadership must address (see: Coburn-Obama) will help push this one over the finish line.
Okay, okay. Maybe mid-September is a little early to be talking about such things, but I’m beginning to pick up a sense that the prevailing script in the news media – that the Democrats are poised to upset the balance of power in Washington – may have been over-hyped over the past few weeks.
I realize politics is an up-and-down thing and that momentum can shift more than once even at the end of an election season, but here’s why this sense of an impending Democratic takeover seems to me to be overreaching:
Parties are secondary. The polls that count are the ones with candidate names on them, not party preferences. Generic polls that test the electorates’ comfort level with the Democrats and Republicans in Congress may be useful in understanding the background noise for this year’s elections, but voters don’t face off between an elephant and a donkey in the polling booth – they choose between two individuals.
I am sorry that neither Brad Blumer of The New Republic nor Ezra Klein the American Prospect seem to really "get" the problem with earmarks. It's not that earmarks are bad - it's that they are never subjected to scrutiny, that they are part of the underbelly of the Congressional process that never sees the light of day, that there's no opportunity for the public - much less Members of Congress - to evaluate them. It's fundamentally undemocratic for a single member of Congress to allocate money without scrutiny of his colleagues and the public. The process stinks.
“If we are going to have any taxes at all, the fairest place to start is with dead billionaires.” That quote – from Chuck Collins of Responsible Watch – is one side of the argument against doing away with inheritance taxes, a mission high on the priority list of the Bush administration and the Republican leadership in Congress.
The other side of the argument is to call it a basically unfair “death tax.” That’s the mantra that’s been used for years to rationalize raising the limits before the inheritance tax kicks in, and eventually to do away with it altogether.
The House and Senate have agreed on a version of S. 2590, the Coburn-Obama database bill. The press release indicates that the publicly available database that the legislation will create will include both federal contracts and grants (an earlier House bill, Blunt-Davis, would have disclosed grants but not contracts). The bill still has to pass the House, but it looks like it's moving forward. Here's the release:
WASHINGTON---House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), U.S. Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.), Barack Obama (Ill.), and Tom Carper (Del.), and Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) today announced that they have reached agreement on legislation to increase accountability and transparency by establishing a public database to track federal grants and contracts.
...unanimously. Lots of groups got involved in drawing attention to the holds, smoking out Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd, and keeping pressure on the Senate leadership in both parties to pass this measure to provide the public with an online database tracking all federal contracts and grants--letting us see the government's receipts for all those shopping sprees--but I think N.Z. Bear deserves a lot of thanks for graphically turning a parliamentary maneuver into a Washington whodunit, complete with citizen sleuths. Not quite Agatha Christie, maybe, but not bad at all!