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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

   20140901MetroCastweb

Finding out how Uncle Sam spends our money may get easier

The word transparency in government is used quite a bit by politicians and various watchdog groups. But, what exactly does it mean?  A good example was an experience I had a long time ago working for a Republican Senator from Idaho, Mike Crapo. I wanted to find out about a grant program for research on additional uses for wheat stalks. Idaho, in addition to its famous potatoes, grows a lot of wheat. I searched and I searched.

First I wanted to find out if the Congress had appropriated the money. This required reading through the appropriations language and there is a lot of it. That took quite a while, but I found the language and then I needed to find out what the Department of Agriculture did with it. This part took forever. The department had a tough time sorting through its own cumbersome records to find out if the grant was ever awarded and then had an even tougher time finding out who actually got the work. The whole process took almost two weeks. Clearly nothing about this grant program, from the Congressional level to the agency, was remotely transparent.

That was for someone working in a Senator’s office. If I had been an average citizen I wouldn’t have had a chance. This is an example of a government program that wasn’t transparent. If it had been, if the accounting, starting with the legislative language all the way through to the cutting of the check, had been transparent and linked together, none of this should have been particularly difficult. However, thanks to lack of a direct link, in terms of the accounting from legislative language to actual budgets, accounting codes that aren’t coordinated, and reports that don’t align with one another, most federal government spending isn’t transparent at all.

But there is hope. Our own Senator Mark Warner (D-Va) sponsored a bill called the Data Analysis and Transparency Act.  The legislation directs the Treasury to start the process of linking all the pieces of government finance together. From the language in the Congressional bills right on down to what’s called the checkbook level. This information will be accessible not just to government personnel but to the average citizen as well. This means you and I will be able to track the money trail far easier than we can now.
Both of our Virginia Senators voted for it, Mark Warner was its sponsor, and my old boss, Senator Crapo, always supportive of a common sense proposal, whether proposed by a Democrat or Republican, voted “aye” as well. The challenge will be implementing it and making sure the agencies work together so that if you or I want to know how much was spent, on say a federal building, a park, or a weapons system, or how much money was given to a particular contractor, we’ll be able to track that down. It will take some doing, and Congress will have to make sure the agencies follow, not an easy task, but it will make it easier for all of us to keep an eye on our government.
 
—Reach David Kerr at
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