Future of Government Transparency Bill Unclear

Temporarily blocked in the Senate, a bill that would put federal contractors on notice has lost its momentum.

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WASHINGTON–While congress failed to clean up this spring’s lobby scandal, or the numerous other scandals involving the abuse of government contracts, hope for reform comes from a piece of legislation introduced by Senators Tom Coburn and Barack Obama in April and which was green lighted by the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in late July.

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which Coburn has called “Google for government spending,” calls for a single, publicly accessible Web site that tracks the approximately $1 trillion in federal contracts, grants, and loans — among other allocations — awarded each year, providing detailed information on the ward’s recipient, amount, and intended purpose. “The concept behind the bill is really quite simple: put information on government spending out there for all to see and greater accountability will follow,” Coburn said during the July 18 hearing on the legislation. “It will also change the expectations of those receiving funds…they will know in advance that the information will be public.”

The Web site itself would be created and operated by the Office of Management and Budget. A search engine would enable anyone to “literally type in a name… for example, ‘Halliburton’, ‘Planned Parenthood’, or ‘Alaskan bridges’, and something will show up,” said Coburn’s spokesman, John Hart. “Another great example is if someone wanted to get quick and accurate information on Katrina reconstruction, they’ll just type in the name of the contractors.”

Co-sponsored by 29 senators on both sides of the aisle, the bill has garnered widespread support from more than 100 organizations, ranging from Greenpeace to Jim Dobson’s Focus on the Family. However, just as the legislation was gaining momentum, it was blocked from floor consideration by an anonymous hold — the unofficial procedure whereby a Senator requests that the floor leader prevent a particular bill from reaching the floor.

The reasons for the hold remain unknown. Adam Hughes, the director of fiscal policy at OMB Watch, said the hold was likely placed for technical reasons and not by a legislator who is against accountability and transparency. Now, Hughes said, “the real issue is time.” He pointed out that before congress adjourns in early October there will only be four weeks left to get the bill passed, but during that time many other pieces of legislation will be competing for attention.

Hughes also pointed to Rep. Tom Davis as another potential threat to the bill. Davis’ own bill, the Federal Spending Assistance Bill, passed unanimously in June. Unlike the senate bill, Davis’ exempts contractors from the database, “leaving only grant-recipient NGOs like Doctors Without Borders in the crosshairs,” observed American Enterprise Institute fellow Roger Bate.  Meanwhile, Davis’ questionable relationship with his wife’s firm, ICG Government, a Richmond, Va., consulting firm that represents clients seeking lucrative federal contracts, has come to light. In the end, this could bode well for the senate bill. 

As Obama pointed out during the hearing, transparency will only go so far toward controlling wasteful government spending and curbing fraud. “It wouldn’t have stopped FEMA from spending $880 million on temporary housing trailers that are now sinking and rusting away in Arkansas. Nor will transparency by itself prevent federal relief monies from being used to perform sex-change operations or to take Caribbean vacations.  But transparency is the first step to holding government accountable for its actions.”

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