03 July 2006

Traceable Political Money Is A Good Thing

Captain Ed points out an early initiative in Congress that would create a database of a significant portion of total government spending and make that information available online for all to peruse:

WASHINGTON, July 2 — Exasperated by his party's failure to cut government spending, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, is seeking cyberhelp.

Mr. Coburn wants to create a public database, searchable over the Internet, that would list most government contracts and grants — exposing hundreds of billions in annual spending to instant desktop view.

Type in "Halliburton," the military contractor, or "Sierra Club," the environmental group, for example, and a search engine would show all the federal money they receive. A search for the terms "Alaska" and "bridges" would expose a certain $223 million span to Gravina Island (population 50) that critics call the "Bridge to Nowhere."

While advocating for openness, Mr. Coburn is also placing a philosophical bet that the more the public learns about federal spending, the less it will want.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic idea. While I probably wouldn't use such a tool all that much myself, I expect that those blogs that I read whose proprietors have far more time to dedicate than I would frequently reference information from that database. I would think that both sides of the political aisle would agree that spending is out of control, and I feel that Coburn's contention that "[s]unshine's the best thing we've got to control waste, fraud and abuse" is right on target. The NY Times would be spending their time much more fruitfully if they dug into the way that money is being spent domestically—what programs it's going towards, how much is being wasted in the process, etc.—than exposing efforts to trace terrorism financing, for example.

As Captain Ed describes, there's support for this proposition on both sides of the aisle:

[NY Times writer Jason] DeParle notes the differing motivations of the Right and Left in supporting this initiative. Conservatives see this as a shaming mechanism that will shrink government through public outrage. Liberals see it as a way to demonstrate the good works that government programs perform and to get more funding for them. Both of these are honorable motivations and both represent excellent reasons to have this data at the fingertips of every taxpayer in America. After all, we want to know which dollars work for us and which don't. If we have a program that actually does more good than harm, then we can have those facts established when we debate its funding level. If we see the money disappearing with little or no return on the investment, we can either halt the program or get everyone responsible for it replaced with people who will perform better.

Bipartisan agreement is fairly rare, so hopefully this idea will go far in Congress. I suppose the only problem is that it has to go far in Congress in order to get implemented... :-P Dunno how keen a lot of them are going to be on voting for something that will put a lot of scrutiny on their pet pork projects.

Regardless, I'd also like to see this idea expanded to include donations and other contributions to political campaigns. I'm thoroughly fed up with all of the goofy campaign finance laws that have come on the books in the last however many years, as no matter how many holes Congress tries to plug with laws like McCain-Feingold, candidates and donors will still find ways to work around the system. Modifying Coburn's quote a bit, "[s]unshine's the best thing we've got" to keep campaign financing on the up-and-up. In my mind, rather than trying to strictly limit what kinds of money can be given to a campaign, there should be practically no limits whatsoever on campaign donations, but every campaign should be required to keep and publish a detailed statement of every penny received from every donor, as well as a detailed budget of expenditures. Internal costs like overhead and wages/salaries wouldn't need to be itemized, but anything that goes towards informing the public (TV/radio advertising, trail campaigning, and the like) should be itemized in exquisite detail. One clause I would want to include in the law, though, would be to require that every "informing the public" item would be required to provide, say, the top two or three contributors to that candidate's (or proposition's) campaign, so that those who might not have ready access to (or interest in) the detailed financing information would still be informed as to the source of the funding for the advertising.

This approach obviously has limitations that need to be worked out, and I've not thought everything through carefully. One problem that presents itself immediately is that it would be easy to give money in the guise of a cover corporation or organization, and thus camouflaging the ultimate source. The solution to this would be for each political organization to be required to publish a report describing the contributions and contributors. I guess now that I think about it, perhaps this sort of information already exists and is being collected, but I just don't know about it. <shrug> Still, I think the most effective way of keeping campaign financing honest is to make the sources and destinations of the money as transparent as possible... wrangling around with who can and can't give to what candidate/cause is ultimately useless in trying to control political money.

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