I was lucky enough to be invited to the bill signing ceremony for S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, at the Old Executive Office Building this morning. President Bush’s remarks are here; Glenn Reynolds has a post here; and Mark Tapscott previewed the event this morning. It was nice to meet the two of them in the flesh, as well as a fair number of the folks who are part of the Exposing Earmarks coalition.
It occurred to me while I was sitting there that, had it not been for the Out the Secret Holder campaign–in which citizens not only identified the two Senators blocking the bill (Sen. Ted Stevens and Sen. Robert Byrd) but also let 98 other Senators know that opennness in government was an important issue–there probably would not have been a bill signing today. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant, and let’s hope the federal spending database that this bill creates will provide much more of that. I’m going to try to keep a close eye on the process–we all need to make sure that the database is all that it can be.
In his remarks, Bush said,
You know, we spend a lot of time and a lot of effort collecting your money, and we should show the same amount of effort in reporting how we spend it. Every year, the federal government issues more than $400 billion in grants, and more than $300 billion in contracts to corporations, associations, and state and local governments. Taxpayers have a right to know where that money is going, and you have a right to know whether or not you’re getting value for your money.
I’ll leave aside the obvious criticism I could make (that the IRS, which audits fewer than one percent of income tax returns, guestimates it misses something like $100 billion a year in collections)(okay, I’m not leaving aside that criticism), and instead focus on the “knowing where your money goes” part of that equation–and particularly on the nettlesome details of that. On the contracting side, for example, we need to see not just the contracting agency, the company winning the contract, the amount of money, and the nature of the work to be performed, but also information on whether or not there was competitive bidding; if so, how many companies bid for the contract; how did the original request for proposals read (if that’s how the procurement process was handled); information on whether the contractor was chosen by a member of Congress through an earmark or at the discretion of the government agency; information on whether the contracting entity is performing the work or in turn having a subcontractor perform parts or all of the work and for how much money–these are all just off the top of my head, but they’re something of a starting point. Agencies already collect a lot of this information (on no-bid vs. closed competition vs. full competition; on whether contracts are indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity, cost plus or fixed fee); the rest shouldn’t be difficult to start collecting going forward. I’m not as familiar with the grantmaking side of federal spending, but it seems to me that a similar level of transparency regarding who authorized the spending (whether it’s Congress through an earmark or block grant or federal formula for apportioning money to the states, or at the discretion of an agency), whether the grantee will perform the work or whether a subcontractor will do it, should be disclosed.
There’s a fairly detailed discussion of these issues from the Senate testimony of Gary Bass of OMB Watch (full disclosure: they’re a Sunlight grantee, and reading what Gary had to say about S. 2590 this will give you a pretty good idea of why).
Let’s return a minute to the President’s remarks. He said:
By allowing Americans to Google their tax dollars, this new law will help taxpayers demand greater fiscal discipline. In other words, we’re arming our fellow citizens with the information that will enable them to demand we do a better job — a better job in the executive branch and better job in the legislative branch.
Information on earmarks will no longer be hidden deep in the pages of a federal budget bill, but just a few clicks away. This legislation will give the American people a new tool to hold their government accountable for spending decisions. When those decisions are made in broad daylight, they will be wiser and they will be more restrained.
Okay — that’s the goal. Let’s keep an eye on whether the database will have the kind of data it needs to bring disclosure of earmarks and other questionable federal spending decisions from deep within the pages of a federal budget bill or from backroom decisions granting no-bid contracts to the light of day through online transparency.