Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Mark Tapscott filling in as a guest blogger. Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, proprietor of Tapscott’s Copy Desk blog and the Distinguished Journalism Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Glaser will return here next Monday, Oct. 9.
Among the oddities of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act effort was that many of the major advocates — who spanned the political spectrum from left to right — had never worked together and did not meet in person until the day President Bush signed the measure into law.
In fact, many of these folks who gathered in the old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House to witness Bush signing the bill normally would be on opposing sides of most issues in Congress. But there was something different with FFATA, which requires the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to establish a google-like Internet database of most federal spending. The landmark measure was co-sponsored by senators Tom Coburn, R-OK, and Barack Obama, D-IL.
That something, of course, was the idea that accountability in government requires transparency and therefore taxpayers have a right to know how the government is spending their money. The Internet is especially well-suited for making such transparency available to anybody able to click a mouse.
Many of my friends on the right think this is a dandy idea because it will help expose more of the waste and fraud with which the federal budget is rife. And many of my friends on the left believe just as fervently that the more people realize how much good is done every day in a thousand ways by federal programs, the more they will want those programs to be properly funded.
My view is that the Coburn-Obama database will put much more and far more accurate information about federal spending in the hands of policymakers, the media and the public. Better information will lead to more informed decisions, regardless of the content or policy implications of those decisions.
Five weeks out from the voting in a bitterly contested congressional election that may well see a partisan earthquake in Congress might not seem like the ideal time to offer this observation, but I believe we are on the cusp of an era of fundamental reform sparked by greater government transparency.
Coburn and Obama hint at such an era in an oped in The Washington Examiner Monday:
“This movement also demonstrated that even in our polarized political culture the American people can forge a consensus and achieve real results. One Web site won’t change government overnight, but the widespread support it received, the swiftness with which it was passed, and the steps it will take to reconnect citizens with their government are all real and welcome signs of hope.”
There are lots of signs. The Sunlight Foundation, for example, has launched the Punch Clock Campaign designed to persuade Members of Congress to post on their web sites their daily meeting schedules. Sunlight is offering $1,000 “goodwill bounties” to anybody who persuades an incumbent to agree and $250 to those who persuade a congressional challenger.
Posting a public schedule might not seem like a big deal, but surely there is value in establishing the practice of disclosing who your congressman and senator is meeting with each day and otherwise accounting for the time they are supposed to be representing you in the nation’s capitol. The campaign is only a couple of weeks old, but already Punch Clock has attracted support from groups across the spectrum, just like FFATA.
More important, 10 Members of Congress have signed the Punch Clock pledge, twice as many as refused, and hundreds of people are calling their representatives and challengers to ask them to also take the pledge.
One of Sunlight’s prime movers is former Dean online campaign guru Zephyr Teachout, who in an email offered this observation about the Punch Clock effort to date:
“One of the things that is striking to me is how atrophied our public muscle has become, so that its difficult and daunting — and a little embarrassing — to call a politicians office and ask them to do something, even if its something you care about. One of our goals, besides transparency, is to give that muscle some exercise. For our democracy to work, collective action on fundamental issues of importance — like transparency— needs to be a habit, not an extraordinary moment.”
Now there’s an interesting new career possibility — personal trainer for the political system’s public muscle!