Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bloggers help Obama pass Senate pork bill - House also near OK on database searches

Bloggers help Obama pass Senate pork bill - House also near OK on database searches
By William Neikirk
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 9, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Teamed with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, Sen. Barack Obama has scored the biggest legislative victory of his Senate career on a bill to establish federal searchable databases of all government contracts, loans, grants and special-interest spending commonly known as pork.

Coburn of Oklahoma and Obama (D-Ill.) overcame the secret opposition of two powerful Senate veterans, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), partly because Internet bloggers on the left and right tracked down and disclosed that first Stevens and then Byrd had stealthily put holds on the bill.

Stevens, Byrd back away

Senators have the privilege of putting holds on legislation without their names being disclosed. Usually the leadership doesn't buck them. But, facing criticism in the blog world and in newspaper editorials, Stevens and Byrd--renowned for their ability to snare federal dollars for projects in their states--dropped their opposition.

The Senate approved the measure by unanimous consent Thursday night. The House has passed a similar bill that does not cover contracts. But late Friday, Obama's office announced that House sponsors had agreed to go along with the Senate-passed measure with some modifications. And so Obama, elected in 2004, likely can soon claim he has passed a law.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he planned to schedule the compromise bill, largely tracking the Obama-Coburn measure, for a House vote next week.

Obama earlier succeeded in passing an amendment to an Iraqi spending bill to provide assistance to the Republic of Congo, but the database legislation has further reach, covering $1 trillion in federal spending, and wider consumer appeal.

Both senators also have co-sponsored an amendment that would require competitive bidding on Federal Emergency Management Agency contracts, ending the practice of non-bid contracts.

The victory for Obama and Coburn demonstrated the growing power of the Internet in influencing legislation. Their bill would make it easier for Americans to use computers to quickly discover how their money is being spent, and particularly who is benefiting most from the federal budget.

Brian Riedl, a budget expert for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said computer users could type in "Halliburton" and get a list of all contracts between the government and the oil services company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Similarly, he said, they could type in "Planned Parenthood" or "Sierra Club" and discover all federal financial dealings with such groups. Or they could type in a phrase for a broad category of spending, such as "highway spending."

"People are going to be stunned to see how much of our tax dollars are wasted," Riedl said, adding that over time the databases could be a powerful tool in controlling spending.

Although it doesn't directly crack down on earmarks by members of Congress, in which lawmakers attach local pork projects to large bills, it would allow the public to get complete lists of such projects with little effort. But the names of the sponsors of earmarks would not be disclosed. Obama has introduced legislation to do that.

Information on federal spending is widely available on the Web, but the Obama-Coburn bill would make it easier to search for and monitor spending.

"By helping to lift the veil of secrecy in Washington, this database will help make us better legislators, reporters better journalists and voters more active citizens," Obama said in a statement. "It's both unusual and encouraging to see interest groups and bloggers on the left and the right come together to achieve results."

An unlikely alliance?

The legislation also brought together an unlikely pair in Obama, who usually leans to the left on legislation, and Coburn, a physician who leans far to the right on many issues.

John Hart, Coburn's press secretary, said, "They have great rapport. It's surprising for people who make a lot of assumptions about partisan differences. Both have sincere motivations to hold government accountable."

In announcing an agreement on disclosure legislation, Boehner, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said the government awards $300 billion in grants to 30,000 different organizations and a million contracts that exceed the $25,000 reporting threshold. There will be separate databases for contracts and grants, they said.

Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, praised congressional efforts for databases his agency will set up. "American taxpayers benefit from having the necessary information to hold government accountable," he said.



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