Getting to Government Transparency

There’s technology policy, and there’s how technology affects policy.

That’s why I found my colleague Chris Edwards’ recent Tax & Budget Bulletin so interesting.  He discusses a number of federal databases that bring some transparency to federal spending, including the Federal Assistance Award Data System and the Federal Audit Clearinghouse.  Between them, they reveal quite a bit of information about federal spending and the staggering number and amount of subsidies and grants handed out by the federal government each year.

Edwards also hails a proposal by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to create a comprehensive Internet database of federal contracts, grants, and other payments.  It would be a great leap forward in terms of transparency about spending, like the Thomas system was for the legislative process.

Advocates from across the political spectrum want a government that “works.”  Most believe that their perspective would “win” if the politics and government worked.  Whatever the case, transparency is widely agreed to be good — the more the better.

Thomas was an improvement.  Yet it hasn’t transformed the legislative process the way some might have hoped.  Lawmaking remains murky and confusing to the vast majority of the public.  Even if it was done well, a federal spending database probably wouldn’t transform the politics of government spending either.

Information technology will surely help, but transparency isn’t enough.  The twin problems that must be overcome are rational ignorance and rational inaction.  It’s hard to learn about government, and hard to affect it, so people make better uses of their time.  Operating a lemonade stand would be far more lucrative and enjoyable for most people than campaigning for a tax reduction.  (The piece linked here is a good discussion of rational ignorance.)

There are some efforts to defeat the twin plagues of ignorance and inaction.  GovTrack.us, for example, attacks ignorance with more information presented more accessibly than Thomas.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently took after inaction with a wiki devoted to campaigns

My favorite — because I run it — is WashingtonWatch.com.  It displays pending legislation with its price-tag per person, per family, etc. and it gives visitors a chance to air their views.  A little run at ignorance, a little run at inaction.  Given time, it could blossom into transformed government.  In the meantime, the more transparency the better.

Details, Please

Here’s a snippet of a National Review editorial on the Middle East:

The fight has to be taken to Syria and Iran, which doesn’t mean imminent military action, but does mean more serious pressure on all fronts. Iran’s agents in Iraq currently don’t fear us — they should. And our patience with the current round of ineffective nuclear diplomacy should be wearing thin fast. As for Syria, there are still sanctions that can be levied against it, and Israel should make it clear that it considers Syria’s continued arming of Hezbollah a hostile act. The downward drift of events in the Middle East is eventually going to force the Bush administration either to tacitly admit defeat in the region or to accept the confrontation that its regional antagonists are forcing. And defeat is too awful to contemplate.

This sort of thing is fine for a stump speech, or for a Senator’s think tank address, but there’s precious little policy guidance here. Magazines criticizing policy should be able at least to describe their counter-proposals in clear language that indicates what, exactly, is being proposed. For example, what does “more serious pressure on all fronts” toward both Iran and Syria look like?  Or, if our patience with the nuclear negotiations with Tehran should be “wearing thin fast,” what should follow on once it’s worn through? It seems there’s only one stick left.  Is NR proposing we use it?  There is no mention of any carrots.

Then we get proposed sanctions against Syria.  Never mind the fact that they would almost certainly fail to gain international support, given the Bush administration’s total indifference to world opinion on the current crisis.  Beyond that, economic sanctions generally have a remarkably poor track record of success, in particular unilateral sanctions.  But then comes the follow-on proposal to whisper in Israel’s ear and advise it to tell Syria that it considers Syria’s continuing patronage of Hizbollah “a hostile act.” Does that mean we should promote and then support an Israeli attack against Syria?

National Review’s editors, and the Bush administration itself, have the look of a compulsive gambler who, after losing his life savings, takes out a line of credit in the mistaken belief that his luck is changing.  Yes, the Middle East was in turmoil before Bush came into office, and yes, it will be in turmoil after he’s gone.  But the current “downward drift of events” that NR laments is a direct result of the Bush administration’s failed policies.  And yet NR is advocating an escalation of the same policies as a remedy.

Where’s Fidel?

Reading major newspapers and listening to NPR this morning, I don’t hear anyone asking what seem to me to be the obvious questions about Castro’s condition: Is Castro alive? Is he incapacitated? Did he compose or approve the statement read in his name? In a secretive dictatorship, you can’t believe everything the regime says. Raul Castro and his colleagues may be trying to create the impression of a gradual transition. On the other hand, it could well be the case that Fidel is himself trying to prepare Cubans for a transition that will happen eventually. I’m just surprised that no one seems to be asking whether Fidel directed this cession of power himself – except in the streets of Miami.

The Federal Government Is Remarkably Efficient (at Throwing People in Prison)

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports some disturbing statistics on conviction rates at the federal level:

About 95 percent of federal criminal defendants plead guilty. Of the remaining few who fight in court, nearly nine of 10 are convicted, according to national statistics.

[…]

“The odds are pretty stacked against defendants once an indictment is issued; that pretty much seals their fate,” said Mark Allenbaugh, a Huntington Beach, Calif., lawyer and nationally recognized expert on the federal court system. “Once the indictment is issued, conviction is almost guaranteed.”

Between 2000 and 2005, 99 percent of the 435,000 federal criminal defendants prosecuted nationwide were convicted.

I suppose it’s possible that just about everyone ever indicted at the federal level is guilty, but I doubt it. U.S. Attorneys’ offices tend to be better staffed and better funded than local prosecutors’ offices, and certainly have more resources than the average defendant. Couple this with the accompanying trends of the federalization of crime, the criminalization of everthing under the sun, and mandatory minimums, and you get a rather stark explanation for America’s exploding federal prison population.

The article also delves into the troubling role plea bargaining plays in all of this, including what amounts to the de facto punishment defendants often get for insisting on their right to a jury trial:

Former U.S. Attorney Frederick Thieman said defendants shouldn’t face tougher sentences just because they went to trial.

“There’s a ridiculous cost to exercising your constitutional right to go to trial,” Thieman said. “The stakes are too high.”

[U.S. Attorney Mary Beth] Buchanan said defendants always have the right to go to trial.

“If a defendant believes they did not commit the crime as charged, or if they believe the government cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, then a defendant absolutely has the right to a jury trial,” Buchanan said.

Those who lose shouldn’t expect leniency after the fact, Buchanan said.

“They can’t have it both ways,” she said.

As //cbs4 [dot] com/video/?id=19693 [at] wfor [dot] dayport [dot] com" target="_blank">t//cbs4 [dot] com/video/?id=19693 [at] wfor [dot] dayport [dot] com" target="_blank">his heartbreaking report illustrates, it’s often quite a bit more complicated than that. The linked report is admittedly a state prosecution, not a federal one. But it rather aptly illustrates the absurdies arising from from ill-considered “tough on crime” legislation, drug laws, mandatory minimums, and overzealous prosecutors.

Boehner Cites, Promotes Americans’ Anxiety

National Journal’s Hotline has dutifully reprinted House Majority Leader John Boehner’s open letter of encouragement to fellow Republicans as they go into the summer recess. In it, Boehner cites Americans’ ongoing anxiety about a number of issues.

“International threats are also contributing to the anxiety American families feel,” he writes.  He continues:

[Terrorists are] bent on destablizing democracies throughout the world. And they are more determined than ever to penetrate our leaking borders and carry out their murderous ambitions against innocent citizens on American soil.

Naturally, Boehner derides Democrats for failing to do security like Republicans do security.

Last year, for example, 152 Democrats voted against the REAL ID Act, which implemented needed driver’s license reforms, making it more difficult for potential terrorists to obtain driver’s licenses or state ID cards, and ensuring that states improve their data security.

Nevermind that false ID was not part of the modus operandi of the 9/11 terrorists. Identification requirements are not very good for tracking or controlling criminals and essentially worthless for stopping suicidal terrorists, but they are very good for tracking and controlling law-abiding citizens.

In Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, Timothy Naftali frames this kind of letter:

The politics of fear have … prevented a serious national conversation about the true dimensions of the threat. The public has no idea of the tradeoffs between security and freedom. Their elected representatives speak of doing everything necessary to protect them, while each political party argues that it is more likely than the opposition to keep the nation secure.

This perspective turns the Boehner letter into a caricature. Naftali adds, “The American public should be informed that the terrorists cannot win any war against the United States … .”

On What Planet?

Peter Beinart writes in the New Republic:

The struggle that initially roiled the Clinton administration–between deficit hawks and deficit spenders–is basically over; today, even the most liberal Democrats are fiscal conservatives.

Stephen Slivinski’s new book does demonstrate that today’s Republicans are bigger spenders than LBJ. But as the National Taxpayers Union notes in its latest rating of congressional voting, the average Democrat still votes for far more spending than the average Republican. Democrats offer no plan to avert the impending insolvency of the Social Security system. They have denounced the Republicans’ trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare on the grounds that it isn’t generous enough.

Even the relatively conservative Democrats at the Democratic Leadership Council recently released a plan to spend hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars on everything from college tuition to housing to socialized health care for children to McGovern-style “demogrants” for every baby, with no plausible offsetting spending cuts.

Ready to Pay More for Longer Lines at the DMV?

The Decatur (Alabama) Daily News reports that a server shut-down froze driver licensing operations on Friday.

Lines that tend to be long on the best days meandered double-file through hallways at the Morgan County Courthouse after a computer server in Montgomery shut down at about 12:45 p.m. The faulty server, which came back online at 3, is owned and maintained by Oregon-based Digimarc Co., a state contractor, according to [the Alabama Department of Public Safety].

Digimarc is one of several companies that are in the business of licensing and regulating driving. Another cited in the story is AAMVA, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which operates a variety of driver surveillance programs under the AAMVAnet brand.

AAMVAnet is the conduit most states use to access various databases involved in driver license applications and renewals. Alabama uses the service for commercial driver license information, problem-driver point systems and Social Security number verification.

AAMVA is particularly interesting because it styles itself as a neutral interlocutor on motor vehicle administration, police traffic services and highway safety. But according to its non-profit disclosure form, its $30 million in 2003 revenue was comprised of $11 million in government grants and more than $14 million from “contracts/user fees” - most of it likely from operation of the Commercial Driver License Information System.

Anyone who understands the role of self-interest in guiding organizations - even ‘non-profits’ like AAMVA - must recognize that this is an advocate for increased driver regulation and surveillance, most recently through the REAL ID Act’s national identification card. If REAL ID is implemented, AAMVA stands to increase its revenue ten times over.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt told the Decatur Daily News, “As more and more states go through AAMVAnet, it hasn’t been able to handle the volume.” But AAMVA intends to move you into the national ID program - long lines or not - using your state and federal tax dollars.

More on AAMVA and the REAL ID Act can be found in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misuderstood.