This Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is slated to markup a number of important transparency measures. The meeting, scheduled just a week after a they held a hearing dedicated to transparency, shows continued committment to concrete action to make the government more open during the 113th Congress.
It is an exciting time to continue this important conversation as just today there were two new federal spending developments. The House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced a major piece of transparency legislation that would transform how we track federal spending and identify waste, fraud and abuse. You can read more about the bill from a blog post by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight's policy counsel. The White House also issued an executive order today that will put Vice President Biden in charge of an 11-member oversight board — very similar to the Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board — to address federal agency waste and fraud.
This morning I testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy about the failures of government to make rhetoric meet reality. The Sunlight Foundation has been excited about the new promises of data transparency, but sometimes the results are nowhere near the accuracy and completeness necessary for the data to be useful for the public.
Sunlight's Clearspending analysis found that nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on USASpending.gov was inaccurate. While there have been some improvements, little to no progress has been made to address the fundamental flaws in the data quality. Correcting the very complicated system of federal reporting for government spending is an enormous task. It has to be done because without it there is no hope for accountability.
In order to fulfill the promise of the Open Government Directive and move forward to meaningful spending disclosure I offered a number of recommendations to the committee. These include unique identifiers for government contracts and grants, publicly available hierarchical identifiers for recipients to follow interconnected entities and timely bulk access to all data.
A video of the hearing should be available shortly on the committee's website and the entirety of my remarks appear below:
Lots of folks are starting to think about the transition to a new Administration. We know of at least 2 dozen such efforts thus far. And so we'll blog about them as they start to get released.
POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, just released a list of recommendations of major reforms they believe the new presidential administration should adopt to make the federal government more effective, accountable, open, and honest. And we sure like their list! POGO sent their list to both the McCain and Obama transition teams.
Our friends at POGO say their recommendations, if implemented, will make the federal government work more efficiently, as well as shrink the cost of government. As the report states, "the initial costs of these reforms will be more than offset by the longterm savings for the taxpayer."
The food industry's heavy lobbying over the past few years to reduce regulation and paperwork has turned into a "monkey's paw" of sorts. As the AP says, "Be careful what you wish for; lest it may happen," is certainly the lesson to be gleaned from the stupifying, and expected, blowback the food industry is receiving right now from their long lobbying effort. Here's the run-down:
The food industry pressured the Bush administration to reduce paperwork that would have aided health investigators "quickly trace produce that sickens consumers." The Bush administration also killed a plan to require electronic filing that would enable regulators and investigators to more rapidly search for the source of a food contamination outbreak in the case of an outbreak. The food industry spent millions on lobbying to stop these regulations, as evidenced in this chart from OpenSecrets.org:
The food companies worried about the costliness of these proposals and labeled them "burdensome," saying that they could disrupt the availability of consumers' favorite foods."
Now, according to the AP, during the current salmonella outbreak the food industry has lost $250 million, food supplies have been disrupted, and 1,300 people have gotten sick in 43 states and the District of Columbia. So, even without the regulations the food industry got their food disruption, consumers can't eat tomatoes or jalapenos (which are chief ingredients in salsa), and a lot of people got to get sick.
The AP calls these "unintended consequences." I'd say they are totally predictable and the public should take their scorn out on the food industry and their lobbyists for engaging in activities that have made eating more dangerous.
This whole episode reminds me of this scene from Kentucky Fried Movie, where a satirical science film posits a world without zinc oxide:
The Washington Post writes a profile of anti-pork Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) crusade to cut earmarks out of the emergency spending supplemental before the Senate. Only one of his amendments were ultimately successful and the lack of majority support from either party led him to withdraw many of his amendments challenging the earmarks. One of his challenges was to a $500 million earmark to aid rebuilding of a Northrop Grumman shipbuilding yard in Mississippi. The Wall Street Journal reports that the vote was 51-47 with both parties evenly dividing. One of the few successul amendments aimed at controlling spending was introduced by Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and co-sponsord by Coburn. The amendment restricts the number of no-bid contracts for rebuilding in the Gulf Coast and was agreed to with a 98-0 vote.
CongressDaily PM reports that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will finally issue a report on Jack Abramoff and his bilking of Indian tribes in the next two months. However, the report will not touch on Abramoff's dealings with lawmakers or executive branch officials meaning that "two years after news of the activities of Abramoff and his allies first came to light, there is no known congressional inquiry into whether lawmakers or administration officials took improper or illegal actions on their behalf." Congress has essentially given up its authority to investigate the matter and left it up to career Justice Department investigators and prosecutors.
In a sign of the seriousness of the case against him, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), under investigation for alleged bribery in an African telecommunications deal, is selling his Capitol Hill house, according to Roll Call.
Speaking of selling houses, the Washington Post reports that Rep. Jim Ryun is denying that he got a sweetheart deal when the U.S. Family Network sold him their Capitol Hill house at well below market value.
Knight Ridder reports that the Pentagon has investigated itself for spending money “like Paris Hilton at a shoe sale” and found its “prime vendor” purchasing program “sound, even though it overpaid millions of dollars for common kitchen items.” The program “paid $20 a piece for plastic ice cube trays that previously had cost 89 cents and $81 each for coffee makers that it bought for years for $29.”
The Hill reports that Melissa Bean’s (D-IL) “aggressive courting of K Street” is putting her challenger at a disadvantage in fundraising. The political director of the business lobby the Chamber of Commerce stated, “In Bean’s case, she has stepped out and has supported our agenda.” Bean is one of a handful of House Democrats who voted in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was a huge victory for the business lobby.
Google has hired two lobbying firms, one bipartisan and another with close ties to Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, as it enters the world of Washington politics, according to the New York Times. The internet powerhouse also plans to hire a Republican political director for a new political action committee and give campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats. The company currently has an image as a Democratic donor as almost every employee employee contribution in 2004 went to the Democrats.
Lobbying reform appears to be back on track in the Senate as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) agreed to remove an amendment that sought to prohibit a Dubai company from taking over control of a number of ports. According to Roll Call, the Senate appears ready to hear the bill and one of the bill’s principal authors Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) stated, “If they’ll give me a day, I can do it.” On the House side chances for reform look questionable as the Republican caucus cannot decide what direction to take nor which proposals to consider.
Ralph Reed is getting off the hook for his alleged violations of lobbying laws in Texas because the two-year statute of limitations had expired, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said, “There’s smoke. And we have the tools, via grand juries and subpoenas, to go find out if there's fire. But all of the smoke relates to a time period I can't do anything about.”
In a new report by the Minority Office of the House Committee on Government Reform the second Iraqi oil contract for Halliburton comes under intense scrutiny and criticism for “intentional overcharging,” “inadequate cost reporting,” and a “refusal to cooperate.”
The Associated Press reports that, “The former Republican leader of the Wisconsin Assembly was sentenced Monday to 60 days in jail for putting a party fundraiser on the state payroll.” Steven Foti is the “third former state legislator to be sentenced among five convicted in an investigation that began in 2001. Two of the others are Democrats, and two are Republicans.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House has pulled the nomination of David Sanborn to run the U.S. Maritime Administration. Sanborn was previously the former director of operations for Europe and Latin America for Dubai Ports World and his nomination became a key point of attack for critics of the deal for DP World to take over American port operations. The article notes, “Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) said he would block it until he learned more about Mr. Sanborn's involvement in the deal that gave operation of some U.S. ports to DP World, and about DP World's pending sale of those operations.”