Time to Shine Light on Government Spending

Everyone has heard of Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) infamous bridge to nowhere— the congressional earmark that secured $231 million to build a bridge to an island inhabited by roughly 50 people.

But the bridge to nowhere isn’t the only egregious waste of taxpayer money. Citizens Against Government Waste found Congress allocated $2.4 billion to 24 pork projects this year alone.

Taxpayers usually have no way of finding out where their money actually goes or how it is truly spent. Government reform groups are trying to change that by pushing efforts at the federal, state and local level that would shine the light on government spending.

Enter Sen. Barack Obama, Rep. Ron Paul, Sen. Sam Brownback, Sen. Mike Gravel, Rep. Dennis Kucinch and Mr. John Cox. These presidential candidates have all embraced the concept of "Google government" by signing the Oath of Presidential Transparency— which is sponsored by a non-partisan coalition led by the Reason Foundation.

By signing the oath they are promising, should they win the presidency in 2008, that they will issue an executive order during their first month in office instructing the entire executive branch to put into practice the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, a Google-like search tool that will allow taxpayers to hop online and see exactly how their tax dollars are being spent on federal contracts, grants and earmarks.

Making the government more accountable to taxpayers, and more transparent, is a non-partisan issue, which is why a diverse, wide array of three dozen organizations from across the nation has joined the effort.

"Every American has the right to know how the government spends their tax dollars, but for too long that information has been largely hidden from public view," notes Sen. Obama.

Rep. Paul explains, "When government spends the people’s money, it must be done with utmost possible transparency."

Since these comments reflect such a basic principle of accountability, one is left wondering what Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have against providing taxpayers with details on how well their money is spent.

Along with demanding fiscal transparency from the federal government, taxpayers have the expectation that state and local governments will also embrace new technologies to make details about spending decisions and performance readily available at a click of the mouse.

This is why the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s largest nonpartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators, recently adopted model legislation to implement state versions of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. ALEC also adopted a model bill to require that the public have at least 72 hours to review tax and spending bills before they are voted on.

Several states have already moved forward with some form of transparency reforms, including Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Virginia, Minnesota, Hawaii, South Carolina, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

We all know government is plagued by red tape, isn’t efficient and doesn’t work as it should. Increasing transparency and accountability is a huge first step. But that is only half the equation. We also need policymakers to make significant changes after we all get to see the horror and reckless spending that will be revealed by shining the light on government spending and earmarks.

This means we’ll need leaders willing to cut under- or non-performing programs or activities in some cases. Initiatives at any level of government that pair transparency with accountability will set us on the road to performance-based government rather then our current system which is plagued by secrecy, wasteful spending and pork projects.

After losing the House and Senate in 2006, Republicans pledged to return to their fiscally conservative roots. Yet, with Sen. Brownback leaving the race, more Democratic presidential candidates have signed the oath than Republicans. Accountability and transparency should be embraced by both major parties.

Taxpayers are demanding that elected officials at all levels of government respect us enough to show us what they’re doing on our behalf. It’s our money after all.

Amanda Kathryn Hydro is Director of Policy Development for the Reason Foundation. Jason Mercier is Director of the Center for Government Reform for the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center.