A Democracy Without Transparency?

No democratic society worthy of the name can govern itself without transparency and information. It sounds basic, of course, but the past seven years have seen an unprecedented suppression of government information, scientific research, court documents and the rights of access to such stuff. What a pleasure to see that the tide may be turning.

Earlier this week, Senator Barack Obama joined with arch-conservative Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to introduce “The Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008.” The legislation will provide public access to federal grant and contract information through a website, USASpending.gov. The bill would also require all federal contracts and details of the bidding process to be published online. Read more about the bill here.

The legislation builds on the excellent online tools developed by the National Priorities Project, which is well-worth a visit. The NPP website enables Internet users determine how their individual tax bills are allocated among the military, human services and other budget items. Based on your individual payments, the interactive tool spits out specific numbers.

A similar calculator lets you figure out budget tradeoffs. For example, how many one-year university scholarships could be financed if we were to do away with nuclear weapons? In my town, taxpayers paid $1.9 million for nuclear weapons, a sum that would pay for 194 scholarships. There are many other fascinating features of the site, such as how much the Iraq War is costing taxpayers.

This work has some nice parallels at the Sunlight Foundation, which developed a Google Earth application that plotted the locations for almost 1,500 earmarks in the House Defense Appropriations bill. The feature allowed people to get a graphic illustration of exactly where Congress is directing federal spending — and the ability to investigate whether the earmarks address pressing needs, favor political contributors or are simply pure pork. The site also has a list of “insanely useful websites” for tracking government spending and decisionmaking. Highly recommended.