Let the Sun Shine on Government Contracts

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CommonDreams.org

Let the Sun Shine on Government Contracts

by
Ralph Nader

It is dull but so very important.

It is sub-visible but in your pocket and on your back.

I speak of the hundreds of billions each year of federal government contracts, grants, leaseholds and licenses given to corporations to run our government, exploit our taxpayer assets and lay waste to efficient, responsive public services. Before he left Washington in 2003 to run for Governor of Indiana, the hyper-conservative Director of Bush's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mitch Daniels, endorsed the policy of having all federal departments and agencies place the full text of their contracts, leases of natural resources and other agreements on the Internet.

He placed a notice in the Federal Register inviting comments. Obviously, the large corporate contractors and lessees of minerals and other public resources did not like the idea. After all, information is the currency of democracy. Big businesses, like Dick Cheney's Halliburton, love oligarchies and corporate socialism featuring subsidies, handouts, bailouts and contracted out governmental functions.

Big Bureaucracies in Washington, D.C. were not exactly enthusiastic about applying Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' comment that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Unfortunately, Daniels' successor at OMB, Bush loyalist and now his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, was totally cold to the proposal. Activity grinded to a halt.

There is new activity on other fronts, however. Congress, in 2006, passed legislation to shed light on the contracting process. Starting in January of 2008, the government website USASpending.gov started providing the public with the following information:

1. the name of the entity receiving the award; 2. the amount of the award; 3. information on the award including transaction type, funding agency, etc; 4. the location of the entity receiving the award; and 5. a unique identifier of the entity receiving the award.

But the essential requirement-placing the entire text of these contracts on the web- is the unfinished business of Congress, which some Democrats and Republicans are turning their attention to in the coming months. In a meeting, Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep. Iowa) declared his support. Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, has also assented. Others from both Parties are on board.

The next step will either be placing the requisite amendment in must-pass legislation or having public hearings to show the American people the advantages as a taxpayer and citizen of expanding their "right to know."

Consider the groups who will benefit from such open government:

1. Small business competitors who are often aced out of no-bid contracts and over-ridden by major prime contractors' influence on federal agencies. The quality of competitive bidding and performance should go up.

2. Taxpayers and taxpayer groups have opportunities to review, challenge or oppose where their money is going.

3. The media will be able to report to the public about the doings of contracting and leasing and licensing government in faster and much greater detail.

4. Scholars and students at universities, business schools and law schools will be able to provide analyses, improvements on both the substantive content and proper procedures for making these agreements. Sweetheart giveaways, for example, of minerals on public land and easy avoidance of responsibilities should be reduced. Archives of these contracts will be created for historical reference.

5. Local and state governments and legislatures will find themselves equipped to participate where their interests are at stake and may be encouraged to emulate such openness with their own texts of contracts, leases and so forth.

Already, some states like Texas and Indiana are placing notices of state contracts on their websites.

Last week, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, took the initiative by placing on his department's website, Track Your Taxes, details on his office's spending, "including every single contract that our department has entered into, including legal services, such as Special Assistant Attorneys General, and expert witnesses." Mr. Cox added that all vendor contracts, "the type of service being provided, the term of the contract, the amount of the contract, how much has been spent, and how much is left," will be online.

Good step forward. But much more at all levels of government is needed, including the full texts and any performance information about delays, incomplete or incompetent work and other qualitative information such as cost over-runs. You may wish to contact your legislators and solicit their support.

Is it "mission accomplished" when all such outsourcing information is online for everyone to see? Of course not. Information has to be used. This requires that new habits be established.

Reporters, scholars, taxpayer groups and other are not used to this "beat." They have to expand their time and resources to get on it. Otherwise, the bureaucrats and the business lobbies will continue with business as usual.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book is The Seventeen Traditions.

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