Hang Those Earmarks Out in the Sunshine

Your September 13, 2006 editorial “Earmark Showdown” correctly points out that Senator Tom Coburn’s (R., Okla.) Bill requiring the dollar amounts and recipients of all grants and earmarked contracts be placed in a publicly accessible database is an important step toward transparency. It is indeed the least that Congress should do.
On January 6, 2000, I wrote to President Bill Clinton and asked him to issue an Executive Order setting procedures for every agency of the federal government to place its contracts online.

On February 8, 2000, President Clinton wrote back saying he had forwarded this request to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for review.

On September 10, 2001, I wrote to Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., then the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, urging him to give taxpayers access to the full text of government contracts. On June 6, 2003, as a result of Mr. Daniels drive on this issue, a Federal Register Notice was issued asking for public comments on a pilot project to put contracts online. His successors at OMB have not followed up.

We are moving in the right direction with Senator Coburn’s legislation, but as we all know the “devil is in the details.” Requiring federal agencies and departments to post online the full text of all federal contracts, as well as task orders worth $1 million or more, would be a wonderful next step. The computer age should make it possible to efficiently allow for certain redactions related to legitimate concerns about business confidentiality and national security, in contracts before they are posted online in a publicly-available database managed by the General Services Administration.

Already, a large coalition from across the political spectrum has been pushing for increased transparency in government. Increased transparency regarding government contracting is good for a more competitive procurement process, the taxpayer and our democracy.

Contracting out what the Federal government does and contracting to obtain what government needs is a large part of our economy. The former includes letting corporations perform more military and intelligence functions; while the latter has included buying supplies like fuel, paper, food, medicines and vehicles. Taken together, they amount to spending trillions of dollars over the past decade – our tax dollars.

Putting the full text of these contracts online will: give taxpayers both savings and higher quality performances; let the media focus more incisively on this vast area of government disbursements to inform the wider public; encourage constructive comments and alarms from the citizenry; and stimulate legal and economic research by scholars interested in structural topics related to government procurement, transfers, subsidies and giveaways.

Ralph Nader
Washington, DC

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