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Put Full Texts of Government Contracts Online

Let the People Know

by RALPH NADER

Openness in our government is essential for a healthy democracy. When citizens and voters have access to information about the inner workings of their government and representatives, they can cast informed votes. However, when this information remains in the shadows, citizens are left without access to the information necessary for them to properly exercise their civic powers and responsibilities.

Certainly the regular disclosure of how our government spends our tax dollars is extremely important.

In 2006 and 2009, legislation was passed that advanced open government initiatives. With the creation of USASpending.gov in 2006, the public was given access to an online, searchable database that discloses federal financial awards and their recipients. In 2009, the Recovery Act included openness provisions that created a public website to track recovery spending and formed a board that would oversee the Recovery Act funds to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. These were good first steps, but there is much that is left to be done.

Just last month, President Obama signed an Executive Order and a Policy Directive that would officially require data generated by the federal government to be made available to the public online. As with all open government initiatives, this is a welcome development. But again, President Obama and his colleagues in Congress can – and need to – do more.

Attempting to build on the foundation of the 2006 and 2009 transparency laws, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and Democrat Senator Mark Warner have been working to advance the DATA Act in the House and Senate. The DATA Act passed the House in April 2012, but was not acted on in the Senate and died in committee in the 112th Congress. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs did, however, hold a hearing to discuss the bill, titled “Show Me the Money: Improving Transparency of Federal Spending.” During this hearing, despite bipartisan support in Congress, White House representatives from the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department balked at the bill, giving insight to improvements that could be made. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, however, made it clear that a law is needed to specifically enumerate what information must be reported.

The DATA Act was reintroduced in the 113th Congress (H.R. 2061 and S. 994) at the end of May 2013 and unanimously passed the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It aims to improve the quality of publicly accessible government information, set uniform data standards, collect spending data, and examine the information to root out waste, fraud or abuse.

Neither the President’s Executive Order nor the DATA Act, however, has gone far enough. There remains one crucial provision that is notably absent from both proposals: making full contract texts available online. Unfortunately, when it comes to government spending and government contracts, the devil is in the details. Providing this degree of public access to reporters, scholars, taxpayer associations, and more competitive bidders would be an important step forward. It would help keep corruption in check, hold government accountable for its actions, propagate best practices in contracting, give rise to significant taxpayer savings, and encourage fiscal responsibility.

Each year hundreds of billions of dollars in federal government contracts, grants, leaseholds and licenses are awarded to corporations. Taxpayers should be able to easily access clear and concise information on how their tax dollars are being spent by the government at all levels. This is especially needed in an era of massive outsourcing to large private corporations.

States across the country have been implementing their own open government initiatives in the past several years. States leading the way by consistently moving toward making full contract texts of all direct government spending available online include Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Texas. Requiring federal agencies and departments to post the full text of all federal contracts online would be the logical next step.

Concerns about confidentiality or cost of such an endeavor are vastly overblown. The computer age should make it possible to efficiently allow for certain redactions related to only legitimate concerns about genuine trade secrets and national security in contracts before they are posted online in a publicly-available database.

To repeat: Let the people know now. No more secret contracts and other deals.

Putting the full text of these contracts online could give taxpayers both savings and better value; lets the media focus more incisively on this vast area of government disbursements to inform the wider public; encourages constructive comments and alarms from the citizenry; and allows research by scholars specializing in the daily government procurement, transfers, subsidies, giveaways, and bailouts.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.