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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Show me the money

Let the People Know – Put Full Texts of Government Contracts Online
Each year hundreds of billions of dollars in federal government contracts, grants, leaseholds and licenses are awarded to corporations. Taxpayers should be able to easily access clear and concise information on how their tax dollars are being spent by the government at all levels. This is especially needed in an era of massive outsourcing to large private corporations.

States across the country have been implementing their own open government initiatives in the past several years. States leading the way by consistently moving toward making full contract texts of all direct government spending available online include Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Texas. Requiring federal agencies and departments to post the full text of all federal contracts online would be the logical next step.

Attempting to build on the foundation of the 2006 and 2009 transparency laws, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and Democrat Senator Mark Warner have been working to advance the DATA Act in the House and Senate. The DATA Act passed the House in April 2012, but was not acted on in the Senate and died in committee in the 112th Congress. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs did, however, hold a hearing to discuss the bill, titled “Show Me the Money: Improving Transparency of Federal Spending.”

During this hearing, despite bipartisan support in Congress, White House representatives from the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department balked at the bill, giving insight to improvements that could be made. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, however, made it clear that a law is needed to specifically enumerate what information must be reported.

The DATA Act was reintroduced in the 113th Congress (H.R. 2061 and S. 994) at the end of May 2013 and unanimously passed the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It aims to improve the quality of publicly accessible government information, set uniform data standards, collect spending data, and examine the information to root out waste, fraud or abuse.

Neither the President’s Executive Order nor the DATA Act, however, has gone far enough. There remains one crucial provision that is notably absent from both proposals: making full contract texts available online. Unfortunately, when it comes to government spending and government contracts, the devil is in the details. Providing this degree of public access to reporters, scholars, taxpayer associations, and more competitive bidders would be an important step forward. It would help keep corruption in check, hold government accountable for its actions, propagate best practices in contracting, give rise to significant taxpayer savings, and encourage fiscal responsibility.

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