WASHINGTON – Taxpayers may soon be able to track how the federal government is spending their money with the click of computer mouse.
Groups across the political spectrum support the idea, and their efforts were rewarded Thursday as the Senate passed a bill to build a Google-like search engine to allow people to track online about $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans.
The House is expected to pass the measure next week, and it should soon land on President Bush's desk for his signature.
The idea is to open up the federal budget to greater scrutiny and hopefully prevent wasteful spending. Conservatives vow greater scrutiny of "pork barrel" spending while liberals hope to foster a greater appreciation of the good things that the government does.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., passed after Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, dropped his objections. Senate leaders had tried to pass the bill in early August but Stevens and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., blocked passage by lodging secret "holds" on the bill.
But after a remarkable campaign by Internet bloggers to track down those responsible for the delay, Stevens and Byrd let the measure advance.
"Every American has the right to know how their government spends their money, and then to hold elected officials accountable for those decisions," Coburn said. "Only by fostering a culture of openness, transparency and accountability will Congress come together to address the mounting fiscal challenges that threaten our future prosperity."
Vast information on federal spending is already available and a host of watchdog groups track the budget. But the measure would make it much easier for non-experts to monitor the spending.
For example, one could type in "Boeing" to find contracts awarded to the aerospace company or "breast cancer research" to see efforts to battle one of the leading killers of women.
"American taxpayers benefit from having the necessary information to hold government accountable for results," said White House budget director Rob Portman, who promised a "user-friendly Web site so that the public can scrutinize how government is spending taxpayer dollars."
The House passed a narrower version of the measure in June. The original House version would have allowed searches of grants — which often go to nonprofits — but not contracts awarded to businesses. But House GOP leaders announced Friday that they would broaden the bill to encompass both grants and contracts.
"By helping to lift the veil of secrecy in Washington, this database will help make us better legislators, reporters better journalists, and voters more active citizens," Obama said.