February 6, 2009 3:46PM

Transparency, Accountability, and the Debt Bomb

The NPR article containing the interview with House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-WI) that my colleague Michael Cannon blogged on earlier today ends with statements by former Government Accountability Office (GAO) head David Walker that are worth highlighting:

As it stands now, says David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general, the bill appears to have no mechanism for directing spending. It's left up to those state and local officials, who may or may not have the ideas or the means to spend it appropriately. And that will lead to "a series of disappointments that it's too late to do anything about," Walker says.

The bill does make it possible for lawmakers and the public to track the money — but only after it's spent. And that, he says, will lead to bad surprises.

Take, for example, the giant bank bailout known as TARP. That spending has gone all wrong, Walker says. Though the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office are keeping track of the billions spent there, "they're basically reporting on what didn't happen," he says.

"Well, it's a little bit late," he says. "And so the question is, what are you going to do on a prospective basis? I mean, you can't change history. What are you going to do on a prospective basis to minimize the possibility of being disappointed again?"

What are you going to do? Here's what you (Congress) should do: Don't spend the money to begin with.

Like the "good government" crowd, a group that includes voices from the left end of the political spectrum to the right, I'm all for transparency with regard to how politicians spend taxpayer money. It obviously makes my job of pointing out the myriad ways in which legislators and bureaucrats waste our money much easier.

Greater transparency was a major theme of President Obama's campaign. Although the president has gotten off to a rough start (see my colleague Jim Harper's comments here), his much ballyhooed intentions are reflected in the "stimulus"/debt bomb heading toward his desk. As NPR reported on Wednesday, "budget watchdogs say Obama's stimulus package contains spending transparency provisions that are nothing short of revolutionary."

The NPR article also notes George Mason University's Mercatus Center, "which this week launched its own project-tracking Web site. It details the 'shovel ready' projects that members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors have put on their stimulus wish list." For example, using the Mercatus site, I was able to see that the city of Carmel, Indiana, a wealthy suburb of Indianapolis, has a $428,450,000 wish list.

How hard up for federal taxpayer money is Carmel? In late 2007, the city announced "it will buy 11 additional statues from sculptor J. Seward Johnson to help create a walkable outdoor museum of art in the Arts & Design District. The city is paying $979,000 for the statues." The slow economy hasn't put the purchases on hold because the IndyStar reported yesterday that "More statues [are] on the way for Carmel."

I also noted that Carmel's wish list includes millions of dollars for construction activities on Keystone Avenue. But just today the IndyStar reported that the city has hired KPMG to audit the "Keystone Avenue project." Why?  According to the article, "The original price tag of the road project, which includes rebuilding six intersections along Keystone into roundabout-style interchanges, was $90 million. Now the project could need up to an additional $50 million, and council members are hiring an outside consultant to understand why the price tag went up so drastically and how they can cut back and lower expenses."

Let me circle back. According to Rep. Obey, ""We have more oversight built into this package than any package in the history of man. If money is spent badly, we want to know about it so we can hold accountable the people who made that choice." Ah yes, accountability.

When I went to work for Sen. Tom Coburn's oversight committee, I quickly learned that our office had become favorites of the GAO for the sad reason that we actually pursued their recommendations to clean up wasteful federal endeavors. Lots of federal legislators talk about accountability, but very few are actually serious about it. I have no problem stating that David Obey doesn't give a fig about accountability. If he did, he wouldn't have passed out of his committee a bloated $800+ billion "stimulus"/debt bomb that distinguished Harvard economist Robert Barro recently called "garbage." It took me five seconds to spot five programs in Rep. Obey's bill that are notorious for wasting taxpayer money.

Transparency has its place, and those of us opposed to this non-stimulus boondoggle should obviously welcome it. But let's make sure the public understands that whether you get incinerated by a bomb dropped from 50,000 feet in the air or go before a firing squad in which you know the name, rank, and serial number of the shooters, the result is the same.