A Red Letter Day for Transparency

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Two questions were answered on Tuesday: what’s the government spending its money on, and what do members of Congress own.

And when I say answered, I don’t mean in a sound bite or a pie chart or a news conference, though there was one of those too. I mean virtually every question you could dream up about who’s getting federal government contracts and grants, or which companies members of Congress are investing in, you will now be able to answer yourself, in seconds, on the web.

It’s all happening through the efforts of three Washington, DC non-profits. OMB Watch and the Center for Responsive Politics did the work and the Sunlight Foundation provided the funding.

Let’s turn first to the subject of government contracts and grants. The new database, compiled and put on the web by OMB Watch at fedspending.org, covers all federal contracts and grants issued between the years 2000 and 2005. Just how much money are we talking about here? More than $12 trillion in taxpayer money – that’s trillion with a T, not billion with a B. Not even Bill Gates has that kind of money (though naturally his company did get its share of the pie).

You can search through the millions of records by recipient name, by government agency – even by congressional district. And once you’ve zeroed in on a particular contractor, you can see at a glance which goods and services they provided to the government, and what proportion of the contracts they won were through full and open competition versus no-bid awards.

Earlier this year, Congress passed a bill to release this same information in a free web-based database (at a cost of $15 million over the next five years). This database beats them to the punch by more than a year – and the OMB Watch database goes back farther than the one the government is compiling. (And in case you’re wondering, the cost of compiling the data and putting it on the web came to just under $200,000 for the first year’s work.)

The second project being unveiled today by the Center for Responsive Politics is the first-ever searchable database of the personal financial disclosure reports filed by members of Congress – detailed portraits of their assets, liabilities, and major financial transactions over the past year.

These disclosures are filed annually not just by members of Congress, but also by senior officials in the executive branch (though the database currently contains just 22 top-level officials). The information is collected to guard against conflicts of interest – actions in their public duties that could affect their personal fortunes. Without knowing what they own, you couldn’t track any conflicts.

Alas, it’s one thing for the government to collect and compile these reports, it’s quite another thing to make them available to the public at large.

For several years, images of the actual documents for members of Congress have been stored on the web on the Open Secrets site and one or two others. But storing a photocopy of a paper document – while better than nothing – is not at all the same as entering all that information into a database and making it searchable on the web. That step is what the Center for Responsive Politics has just completed and will be unveiling today.

What can you do with it? Plenty. Some questions that would have taken weeks to answer can now be answered in a couple of clicks of the mouse. Here’s an example: let’s say Congress passes a bill that affects the bottom line of a particular company or industry. Let’s pick on Microsoft as an example. With the new database you can search the name of the company and immediately see how many members of Congress own a piece of it and how many have bought and sold shares in the past year. One more click and you’ll have your report: every member who bought or sold the stock, the approximate value of the transaction, and the date it took place.

Granted, the reports are filed only once each year on May 15, so this isn’t instantaneous reporting by any means. Likewise, the dollar amounts are reported in ranges, not exact figures. But until today, without an army of researchers poring through mountains of paperwork, this kind of information would have been impossible to compile.

What this means is that news organizations, bloggers, curious citizens – and for that matter law enforcement officials – can now find information not just about one member of Congress, but about all of them. In seconds, not weeks.

I’ve always thought, somewhat cynically I suppose, that the key to getting elected to public office is knowing more about the electorate than the electorate knows about you. Especially in these days of micro-targeting of voters, we the people have been at a distinct disadvantage in that game. That balance of power is about to change with the release of this new database, and it will be interesting – to say the least – to watch what happens.

Likewise with the contracts database. Suddenly, everyone with an internet connection can see – in as much or as little detail as they want – exactly what the government’s been spending its money on and which companies have been collecting it.

With a little more research, also on the web, that information can then be tied to other databases showing, for instance, the company’s campaign contributions and lobbying efforts.

Add it all up, and this is a very big deal. Your government just got a lot more transparent than it’s ever been before.

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