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Transparency in Government: US Databases Provide Monitoring of Government Spending and “Earmarks”

 
政治情報技術 2011年1月18日

Rapid Access International, Inc.

December 2010

http://www.rapidaccess.com/

Background:

The recent debate in the US Congress on the issue of taxation and whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts is yet another example where US citizens expect transparency in the government process. Web sites are available to explain every detail of the proposed tax legislation and the Obama administration’s reaction to the various proposals. Citizens in the US are taking control of ways to monitor legislation and particularly government spending of valuable tax dollars through the development of new and innovative online databases. In the past, we have written about the development of an online resource called recovery.org which monitors spending by state on all the projects awarded under the government stimulus package. Now, new resources have become available to track “earmark” spending requests by the US Congress. (According to Webster’s Dictionary: an “earmark” is a provision in congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program, or organization).

The Opportunity to Provide Transparency in Government:

Three leading government transparency advocacy groups – Taxpayers Against Earmarks, WashingtonWatch.com and Taxpayers for Common Sense – have been formed and they have just this week launched the first comprehensive database of more than 39,000 congressional earmark requests submitted for 2011 totaling $130 billion. The databases include:

Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Inc. (www.endingspending.com) is a nonpartisan (not Republican, Democrat, or Independent) organization dedicated to educating the American taxpayer about wasteful government spending and the misguided practice of earmarks. The goals of the organization are to help the US recover from the difficult economy and to regain control of federal government spending, balance the budget, pay down the national debt, and restore fiscal responsibility in Washington, D.C. The Taxpayers Against Earmarks work to expose the wasteful practice of earmarks and inform the US taxpayer of the activities of Senators and Congressman who waste government money. The mission of the Taxpayers Against Earmarks is to build communication and coalitions across political party lines and stop the misuse of taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Inc. is a 501(c)(4) registered organization and is tax exempt and independent (not for profit organization).

Washingtonwatch.com: (www.washingtonwatch.com) This site provides numbers and values for each of the proposed pieces of legislation to allow the taxpayer to understand the meaning behind each of the figures and the calculations. WashingtonWatch.com begins with government predictions and forecasts about the costs or savings from proposed changes to government spending, taxation, and regulation. Washingtonwatch.com then takes these predictions and calculates their “net present value” or the value today of changes to future spending, taxes, or regulation. Then, the “net present value” is divided by the total number of people in the United States. The resulting figures inform the monetary significance to average Americans of proposed changes to the nation's policies. The focus of Washingtonwatch.com is to provide data in simple to understand presentations so the average citizen can understand government spending. According to the Washngtonwatch.com website:

    1. Future spending, taxes, and regulatory costs are very difficult to estimate, even for government experts. Most estimates also cover only a limited number of years.
    2. WashingtonWatch.com does not report the many benefits that may be provided by government regulation and spending, made possible by taxation. Proposals that “cost” the average American may benefit you, your community, your loved ones, or your employer.
    3. The dollar amounts on WashingtonWatch.com do not reflect the “incidence” of taxes, spending, or regulation. A tax cut that would save money for the average American, for example, may reduce taxes on only a specific industry or people with a specific level of income.
    4. WashingtonWatch.com does not report the budgetary consequences of legislation. A proposal that “saves” money may drive the national debt higher because it reduces taxes without reducing spending. One that “costs” may reduce the national debt because it includes more taxes than spending.
    5. Not all items tracked on WashingtonWatch.com will be passed into law, and not all legislation and regulation is tracked on WashingtonWatch.com. Adding up all the proposals tracked by WashingtonWatch.com would produce a number that is essentially meaningless.

Taxpayers for Common Sense: (www.taxpayer.net). Taxpayers for Common Sense is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan (not Republican, Democrat, or Independent) budget watchdog serving as an independent voice for American taxpayers. The mission of the organization is to achieve a government that spends taxpayer dollars responsibly and operates within its means. Taxpayers for Common Sense works with individuals, policymakers, and the media to increase transparency, expose and eliminate wasteful and corrupt subsidies, earmarks, and corporate welfare, and hold decision makers accountable.

Source: WashingtonWatch.com website. www.washingtonwatch.com
The WashingtonWatch.com website has 1.3 million yearly visitors.

The Challenge

Initially the cost to create and build the databases was seen as a big problem with lots of technical issues to be resolved such as how to host the databases, whether to charge a fee for access to the databases, and how to fund the building of the databases. Several members of Congress were negative about the idea of empowering the taxpayer and letting them see the details of all the earmark spending. In the end the three organizations listed above (Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Inc., Washingtonwatch.com; and Taxpayers for Common Sense) were able to cooperate together and share the cost of building the core database of 39,000 earmark requests. The database took less than 6 months to build at a cost of less than $100,000 according to Ms. Stephanie Mesick who is the Director of Research and Outreach for Taxpayers Against Earmarks. The databases are shared among each group and they each provide different types of information on their websites to support transparency in government spending. Access to the online data allows the taxpayer to see if they agree or not with the funds being spent by their elected officials and this is a very powerful way to monitor government spending. At present, there is about $130 billion in proposed earmark spending. The number of yearly hits for the databases is expected to exceed 2 million hits in 2011 and there is a lot of traffic (means visitors) to the websites.

The earmark request database is a joint project of Taxpayers Against Earmarks, WashingtonWatch.com, and Taxpayers for Common Sense. The database, lists all earmark requests made for fiscal year 2011 by each Member of Congress. The databases are encouraging Congress to consider a new Act: the Earmark Transparency Act (S. 3335, introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and H.R. 5258, introduced by Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Jackie Speier (D-CA)).

The new databases are helping to provide transparency in Government to the average US citizen and allow them to track the spending of their government at all levels and take control of wasteful spending. It is empowering the US taxpayer and citizen to have greater control and investigate on their own how their elected officials are using taxpayer money.

Sources:

株式会社三菱総合研究所理事長 小宮山宏

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