Case Study. Why Transparency is a Good Thing


The Associated Press reported that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will investigate how a huge loophole in federal overseas contracting was slipped into regulations being drafted to limit waste and fraud in government-funded projects. The regulations, when enacted, will require contractors to establish and maintain specific internal controls to detect and prevent improper conduct in connection with a government contract. The loophole would specifically exempt contracts performed entirely outside the U.S.

According to the report, the Committee will "look at whether the exemption was added at the request of private firms, or their lobbyists, to escape having to report abuse in U.S. contracts performed abroad."

It’s a good question, but, as long as we are on the subject of waste, we would suggest a simple fix that could lead directly to an answer, without spending taxpayer dollars on document reviews, staff interviews, subpoenas, hearings and testimony stemming from an investigation. If Congress had enacted H.R. 984, Congressman Waxman’s Executive Branch Reform Act, a few keystrokes on a computer might provide us with an answer as to whether a firm or lobbyist requested the exemption.

Congressman Waxman’s bill would amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to require certain executive branch officials to report on any significant contact they had with any private party re more…lating to an official government action. If an executive firm, let’s say, Halliburton happened meet with Sally Smith, an official at the Defense Department, on the subject of contractor code of conduct, we might have a very good clue that the executive was seeking an exemption in the rules. At the very least, it would be a precise starting point for a narrow investigation, saving not only taxpayer money and congressional resources, but saving other executive branch officials and private parties the headache and expense of having to respond to an investigation into a matter in which they were not involved.

In certain quarters in Washington, there is a fear of transparency. Member of Congress worry that political opponents will use earmark requests against them in campaign ads. Some think voters will reject them because they met with a lobbyist representing a controversial position. Others believe the "process" will get bogged down if there is a requirement that legislation be posted online for 72 hours before a vote. But what this case shows is that a more transparent system can streamline investigations into who said what to whom. Transparency may even eliminate instances of investigations that are predicated on politics rather than policy (though we are not saying that is the case here). By putting more information in full public view from the outset, a full-fledged congressional investigation and its concomitant innuendos and accusations may be avoided. On Capitol Hill, time is short, money is scarce, but there is no shortage of finger-pointing. More transparency in the executive and legislative branches would help focus the energy and resources of our elected officials in the right direction.