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Congress lifts blinds on its spending

After 2005's bribery and corruption scandals, Congress moves to list US federal expenditures on a searchable database.

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Coming soon to a laptop near you: how government is spending your federal tax dollars – contracts, grants, and special projects sought by lawmakers.

From wartime contracts for Halliburton to earmarks for the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center (think "famous groundhog") in Pennsylvania, all will be listed on a searchable database.

It's the least controversial of all the reforms Congress has considered since last year's bribery and corruption scandals, and its passage will provide an effective new tool for anyone wanting to look over lawmakers' shoulders soon after they clear spending bills.

"This is an extraordinary step for Congress to take, because it will put government information into the hands of millions of citizens who use the Internet as a source of information," says Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a public-interest group that promotes transparency in government. "The notion of government information on the Internet in the 21st-century ought to be a no-brainer."

It took a mobilization of bloggers and citizen groups to break secret holds placed on the bill in the Senate, where the bill passed unanimously Sept. 7. It was expected to clear the House after press time Thursday with broad bipartisan support.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma and Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, requires the White House Office of Management & Budget to maintain a database on some $1 trillion in US spending. New entries will be logged within 30 days of funds being disbursed. Senate majority leader Bill Frist last week credited the "blogosphere" for saving the bill.

"This can be a very powerful tool in the hands of citizens," says Stephen Ellis, vice president of programs for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington. "It will be the gold standard of information for debates over whether this is worthwhile spending or not."

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