The Blog

Google Government Gone Viral

A new government website brings more transparency to federal spending.

9:52 AM, Dec 21, 2007 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Many ailing school districts would benefit from the fresh air and sunlight provided by online budget transparency, perhaps none more so than Washington, D.C.'s chronically corrupt public schools. At Shaw Junior High School, after-school program employees Emerson Crawley and William R. Jones personally spent $13,000 in student money on food, liquor, and entertainment--including $372 at a strip club called Camelot Show Bar. The Washington Post reported dozens more instances of the good old fashioned graft that plagues the city's public schools, but D.C.'s city administrator Dan Tangherli says Mayor Adrian Fenty has no existing plans to put school expenses online. Tangherli notes, however, that the mayor is a fan of transparency initiatives and only assumed direct authority over the schools this summer.

Even though some of the money stolen from D.C.'s student funds came from federal grants, USAspending.gov would not have been able to detect theft of money stolen from grants that did not exceed the $25,000 reporting threshold. Senator Coburn's spokesman Aaron Cooper says that "there is no need to lower the threshold because 95 percent of contract expenditures come from contracts above the $25,000 threshold." But in an age when banks provide online bank statements, why should any public documents collect dust in filing cabinets when they could be online?

After all, Coburn is a fierce opponent of federal earmarks, which only make up 2 percent of all federal spending--and for good reason. Just as Rudy Giuliani's strategy of cracking down on petty crimes like littering and loitering helped reduce the incidence of more serious crimes, fighting even the smallest amount of corruption or wasteful spending might help to rein in the federal budget. As Giuliani said during a speech this fall, "The earmarks are the broken windows of the budget. They're signs of distress. They show a system that's not working. It's like graffiti on the wall of our spending culture."

While there is certainly room for improvement in transparency initiatives, the creation of USAspending.gov--and the spinoffs it inspired at the state and local level--is a dramatic improvement from the laborious process of skimming through 3,000-plus page federal budgets or submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for federal contracting information.

On December 13, Coburn gave credit to bloggers for helping to push the bill that mandated USAspending.gov through Congress, and he then called on his fellow citizens to be vigilant in their endeavor to hold elected officials accountable, quoting the words of Thomas Jefferson: "We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant's books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them."

John McCormack is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.