Aug 23 2006
WASHINGTON - In an ironic twist, legislation that would open up the murky world of government contracting to public scrutiny has been derailed by a secret parliamentary maneuver.
An unidentified senator placed a ``secret hold'' on legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., that would create a searchable database of government contracts, grants, insurance, loans and financial assistance, worth $2.5 trillion last year. The database would bring transparency to federal spending and be as simple to use as conducting a Google search.
The measure had been unanimously passed in a voice vote last month by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and had support from heavy hitters like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. It was on the fast track for floor action before Congress recessed on Aug. 4 when someone put a hold on the measure.
Now the bill is in political limbo. Under senate rules, unless the senator who placed the hold decides to lift it, the bill will not be brought up for a vote.
"It really is outrageous to do this in the dead of night as Congress is recessing,'' said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a budget watchdog group based in Washington. "The public has a right to know how the government spends money.''
Democracy is based on holding the federal government accountable, Bass said. "For any senator to get in the way, (that) is a senator in the way of democracy,'' he said.
The secret hold has prompted conservative and liberal government watchdog groups to band together to "smoke out'' the senator responsible. Porkbusters.org, for example, has posted photographs of all senatorial suspects underneath a bold-faced headline asking, "Who is the Secret Holder?'' The site also features photos of 13 senators who are "in the clear.'' All of them have told the site that they did not place a hold on the bill.
The hunt for the senator is turning into a classic political "whodunnit,'' said Brian Darling, director of senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative leaning think tank based in Washington.
It could be anyone-Democrat or Republican-Darling said. To place a hold, senators merely have to inform their leader that they don't
want the legislation to move forward, he said.
It remains unclear if the senator responsible will be able to withstand the pressure from the broad array of groups and senators supporting the bill.
Why would a senator be against a database that makes it easy to track what companies are awarded grants, procurement contracts, loans, insurance and financial assistance?
"Somebody has something to hide,'' said Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a new Washington-based nonprofit devoted to helping the public understand Congress through the Internet.
"It really is a mystery, not only who did it, but what the rationale could possibly be and why they would go to the mat on this,'' Miller said. ``There is no conceivable, rational explanation for killing this legislation unless they have something to hide.''
What is puzzling is the proposed database would give the public access to how the executive branch spends money, Miller said. It has nothing to do with holding the Senate more accountable. Aides to Obama and Coburn say the senators are determined to get the bill passed.
"I don't think it's dead in the water,'' said Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Coburn. The best way to make that happen, Cooper said, is to inform the public about the bill and have them bring pressure on their members of congress to pass the bill.
''It's more than a little ironic that a bill designed to increase transparency is being held up by a secret hold," said Tommy Vietor, Obama's press secretary. ''Transparency helps everyone."
The database proposed by Coburn and Obama would be far more comprehensive than what the government currently uses. The Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation run by the General Services Administration contains contract information. The Computer
Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects contains information about federally funded biomedical research projects.
Other agencies have smaller databases.
The Coburn-Obama database would be searchable by agency, recipient and type of assistance. Most of all, it would be easy for the public to use. Open government groups are determined to make federal spending more transparent with or without support from the government.
OMB Watch has spent four months and $100,000 to produce its own searchable database. The data will be made available to the public on Oct. 1.
''We are so frustrated that we are doing it ourselves," Bass said. ''If a small non-profit can obtain the information, certainly the government should be able to do this?"