Signs of Hope in Passage of Transparency Bill
By Sens. Tom Coburn and Barack Obama
October 2, 2006
WASHINGTON - It is a rare event in American politics when voters of every stripe can mark an accomplishment in Washington with relief and applause. But such was the case last week when President Bush signed into law the "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act," a bill that will create a Google-like search engine and database of federal spending.
This law marks a small but important step in changing the political culture in Washington. While the concept of the legislation was certainly not original, both the intent of the bill and the way in which it was passed represent a revival of basic democratic ideals that, we believe, carry the hope of even greater reform.
The purpose of this Web site is simple and straightforward. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. By lifting the veil of secrecy that obscures government spending, taxpayers will find it easier to hold elected officials accountable.
Thomas Jefferson put it best in 1802, "We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant's books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them."
Giving taxpayers the ability to track more than $1 trillion in government contract and grant spending including earmarks by congressional district and keyword search opens the federal budget to the scrutiny Jefferson had in mind. The Federal Election Commission's Web site has long given us information about which interests are contributing to which lawmakers, but this Web site can help us connect those dots one step further by detailing whether those lawmakers are repaying those interests with our tax dollars.
Our intent, though, is not to merely to guard against Abramoff-like acts of corruption, but to help taxpayers expose corruptions in our priorities, from Hurricane Katrina contracting abuse to self-interested pet projects.
In the Internet age, making this information available online should be automatic, which is why a vast array of interest groups, bloggers and commentators from both ends of the political spectrum joined forces to put public pressure on Congress when the bill was stalled.
If nothing else, this activism and this bill are a testament to a hunger that exists in America today. It's a non-partisan hunger for a government that's honest and open one that spends our hard-earned tax dollars wisely, efficiently and transparently. The scandals of the last few years have shaken the American people's faith in this kind of government, and if we hope to restore that faith, bills like this will have to stop being the exception and start becoming the rule.
We face great challenges in this country, and we won't always agree on the answers. The American people, however, expect their elected leaders to make hard choices about competing priorities. No American family lives on an unlimited budget, and neither does Congress.
This Web site will help taxpayers ask us the hard questions we need to hear about our spending choices. At a time when our nation is at war, struggling to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and facing skyrocketing deficits and a looming bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security, Congress needs to be transparent and held accountable like never before.
We know of other small, but important, steps we can take. More than a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, there are still no-bid contracts being awarded to companies with questionable spending practices. The process by which Congress awards earmarks is still fraught with waste and abuse. And now that Jack Abramoff has faded from view, Washington seems incapable of passing reforms that were once thought to be inevitable.
The movement that helped pass this bill proves that the American people want to participate in this debate, that they're demanding more from our politics, and that they believe this begins with a government that is responsive and accountable to the public.
This movement also demonstrated that even in our polarized political culture the American people can forge a consensus and achieve real results. One Web site won't change government overnight, but the widespread support it received, the swiftness with which it was passed, and the steps it will take to reconnect citizens with their government are all real and welcome signs of hope.
The authors were co-sponsors of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act signed into law Sept. 26 by President Bush. Sen. Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican. Sen. Obama is an Illinois Democrat.