Exasperated by his party's failure to cut government spending, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, is seeking cyberhelp.
Mr. Coburn wants to create a public database, searchable over the Internet, that would list most government contracts and grants exposing hundreds of billions in annual spending to instant desktop view.
Type in "Halliburton," the military contractor, or "Sierra Club," the environmental group, for example, and a search engine would show all the federal money they receive. A search for the terms "Alaska" and "bridges" would expose a certain $223 million span to Gravina Island (population 50) that critics call the "Bridge to Nowhere."
While advocating for openness, Mr. Coburn is also placing a philosophical bet that the more the public learns about federal spending, the less it will want.
"Sunshine's the best thing we've got to control waste, fraud and abuse," he said. "It's also the best thing we've got to control stupidity. It'll be a force for the government we need."
But Mr. Coburn's plan, hailed by conservatives, is also sponsored by a Democrat, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, and applauded by liberal groups that support activist government. The result is a showcase of clashing assumptions and the oddest of coalitions, uniting Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent critic of gay rights, with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Liberal groups, while also praising openness, are hoping for a new appreciation of what government does, like providing clean water and feeding the hungry. "We need to remind people where Uncle Sam helps us each day," said Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, a liberal group that got its start monitoring the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The House unanimously passed a version of the proposal in late June, though in a form that has drawn outside criticism. The House bill creates a database that would omit contracts, which typically go to businesses, but would include about $300 billion in grants, which usually go to nonprofit groups.
"Contracts are awarded in a much more competitive environment," said Representative Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who was a sponsor of the bill. That makes them more self-policing, he said. Mr. Davis, whose district includes many government contractors, said grants "are more susceptible to abuse."
But liberal critics see a revival of what they call old partisan efforts to "de-fund the left," by reducing grants to liberal groups or adding conditions that limit their activities.
Mr. Coburn joined them in criticizing the House omission of contracts. Including them in the database, he said, is "the only way you're going to bust these indecent relationships of former Pentagon employees working for defense contractors and getting sweetheart deals from buddies inside."
When told of Mr. Coburn's statement, Mr. Davis said, "As usual, I think he's headline grabbing." While Mr. Davis supports more openness in contracting, he said including contracts would "gum up the works" legislatively since more Congressional committees would be involved.
Spending hawks have sought a spending database for years. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington group, tried to build one itself, but search-engine technology now makes the task easier.
On the right, support for the plan reflects an old concern about spending and a new faith in the power of blogs. Supporters picture a citizen army of e-watchdogs, greatly increasing the influence of antispending groups in Washington.
"Now that you've got the Internet, you'll have tens of thousands of watchdogs," said Bridgett G. Wagner of the Heritage Foundation, who is leading a coalition of conservative groups that support the Coburn bill. "That's what people see in it."
Among the bill's leading supporters is Mark Tapscott, the editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, who has promoted it there and on his blog, Tapscott's Copy Desk. While most spending is already a matter of public record, Mr. Tapscott argues that it is often buried in obscure documents.
"The spending cannot be sufficiently scrubbed," Mr. Tapscott said. Whether the database causes spending to rise or fall (he guesses it will fall), "what's important to me is the principle of the public's right to know," Mr. Tapscott said.
A number of blogs popular among conservatives have praised Mr. Coburn's bill. Instapundit, among the most popular, has pushed it. Seeker Blog called it "the best news I've heard out of D.C. this year." Captain's Quarters demanded "Give us the Pork Database," and Porkopolis hailed the measure with the slogan, "Show Me the Money."
While the bill has few overt critics, it may encounter resistance from Congressional insiders who have used their influence to secure projects back home. When Mr. Coburn tried to attach the measure to a lobbying reform bill this spring, Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican known for his zeal in aiding his state, killed it on procedural grounds.
Not everyone is convinced more sunshine will matter. "All this information is out there right now" and being mined by watchdog groups, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. While it was "certainly appropriate" to build a database, he said: "I don't think it would dramatically change public perception of the appropriate size and scope of government. That's a much deeper issue."
One important challenge involves tracking subcontractors. Money awarded, for example, to Lockheed, to build a military plane, might get divided among hundreds of parts suppliers. The database, Mr. Coburn said, would seek to list them all.
The push for openness runs counter to the trend of increased secrecy among government officials who cite the need to protect national security. Criticizing that trend, Mr. Tapscott said, "people in the Pentagon, like bureaucrats everywhere, overclassify too much because of the basic instinct to protect yourself."
But Mr. Coburn said he was comfortable with the overall level of secrecy. His database would adhere to current disclosure rules, he said.
What if sunlight so cleanses the government that the public wants more of it? Grover Norquist, an antitax advocate who supports the House bill, just laughed. "They might say, 'Oh my goodness, look at all the good work that's being done,' " he said. "But I'm willing to take that chance."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company