Proposed database small step forward

By Freedom Newspapers

Googling for government contracts may never become the hottest pastime on the Internet, we’ll admit. But we still see promise in last week’s passage by the U.S. Senate of S-2590, the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which mandates the creation of a searchable database, free to the public, of federal grants and contracts.

Perhaps this would better be dubbed the “through the looking glass law,” given the Alice-in-Wonderland weirdness of so much of what goes on in official Washington.

How many Americans would avail themselves of such a resource, should it become a reality, is unknown. Not all that many, probably. But if it works as intended, it could serve as an excellent resource for curious citizens and enterprising reporters alike, and be a significant step toward a more transparent and accountable federal government. As such, it would be well worth the estimated $9 million it will take to build, and the $2 million it will cost to maintain annually.

It’s not a done deal yet, however. The House version of the bill (H.R. 5060) would limit searches to government grants only, excluding contracts. We hope the more comprehensive bill will be the one that emerges from the conference committee and lands on the president’s desk.

There’s no reason such a search engine shouldn’t be configured to track all major federal expenditures, since it’s all public money and should all be part of the public record, except in the case of classified programs. An honest and well-run government has nothing to fear from more transparency. And the people who pay the bills have a right to know where, and to whom, their money is going.

Rob Portman, Director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, praised the Senate’s vote, saying the “taxpayers will benefit from having the necessary information to hold government accountable for results.” The OMB stands ready, he said, “to work with federal agencies to establish a single, user-friendly Web site so the public can scrutinize how government is spending taxpayer dollars.”

The Senate’s version survived derailment attempts by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who argued that the concept hadn’t been studied sufficiently. But that’s bunk. Byrd and Stevens rank among the biggest practitioners of pork-barrel politics Congress has ever seen, so they naturally fear and oppose anything that will give citizens and good government groups more information about what they and their colleagues are up to.

Congressional “cardinals” — the name given to an elite group of committee chairmen with their hands firmly on the federal purse strings — don’t like commoners and outsiders snooping in their business. If Byrd and Stevens are against a measure, that’s endorsement enough for us.

To be of real use, it will be critical that such a database is designed in a user-friendly way and includes in-depth, up-to-date information about the nature and purposes of grants or contracts. And you can bet, because the federal government is involved, it will be difficult to use, vague on specifics and perpetually out of date.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this won’t go down as a great leap forward in the annals of government reform. But the bill’s passage would be a small and welcome sign that not everyone in Congress has abandoned fiscal reform efforts or forgotten that taxpayers are still the boss. We urge Congress to send the president the strongest, most comprehensive bill possible.