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A move to lift the veil on US spending

A huge database of all contracts, grants, and appropriations is one idea gaining traction in the Senate.

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After a nearly fruitless long war to rein in wasteful government spending, the Senate's most relentless pork-busters are trying a new tack: unleash the energies – and ire – of 10,000 bloggers.

The answer to budgetary obfuscation, these senators say, is sunlight. They propose to list all federal spending on one easy-to-access website, saying it will be simpler for ordinary citizens to see where tax dollars are going – and to shame lawmakers into being more accountable.

Spending on the troops at a time of war, no problem. But $1.5 million to a liquor store in Los Angeles? Or $1.4 million to a car wash in Anaheim, Calif.? How about $1.1 million to a pizza shop, $1.5 million to a wine institute, and $227,000 to a strawberry commission?

All are examples of federal subsidies awarded in California last year. If you know how to use the already-available Federal Assistance Award Data System, you'd be able to dig them up yourself, but only for a single year. The senators' system would allow online users to search for all the US contracts, grants, or other payments made, for example, to Enron or Halliburton over a decade.

"It seemed an obscure issue when I first heard it, but it could be revolutionary," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank here.

The proposed law – cosponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware, and John McCain (R) of Arizona – directs the White House Office of Management and Budget to create a website showing all recipients of federal grants, contracts, and other payments. It must be free, easy to search, and accessible to the public, they say.

A researcher's trove

Congressional staff and the cottage industry of government watchdog groups can't begin to do the research that would be readily available on such a database, Senator Coburn said Tuesday at a hearing on the proposed Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.

"We need help doing oversight," said Senator Obama, who testified at the hearing. "This will empower citizens and organizations."

Senator McCain, who also spoke at Tuesday's hearing, said: "It will be a caution to people who want to appropriate money not for useful purposes."

In the past, the bid to check government spending has focused on so-called pork projects – lawmaker-sponsored earmarks, usually attached to an appropriations bill, that inflate the cost of government.

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