Last week was Sunshine Week, the one week out of the year when there is a coordinated effort by experts to highlight topics related to federal and state open records laws, the public’s right to know, and freedom of the press. There were numerous events around Washington, DC, as well as in cities and on college campuses around the country. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a proud participant and works hard annually to bolster federal openness because “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Sunshine Week, however, is not just about talking about open government and cool events. It’s also about action. Last week, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced the “Contractor Accountability and Transparency Act of 2017” (S. 651), which POGO and eight other bipartisan groups supported.
The bill will expand the contracting information available on USASpending.gov (which now only offers summaries of contracts), make the contract information more accessible and readable, and help reduce Freedom of Information Act backlogs.
In fiscal year 2016, the federal government spent $472 billion for the acquisition of goods and services. In order to rein in spending and regain public faith in the contracting system, the government must provide public access to information on the contracting process. Posting copies of contracts—rather than summary data that offers little, if any, insights into the goods and services being purchased—is essential to learning about government activities and eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, and substandard performance.
When contract information is publicly accessible, genuine competition will increase, and the government will be better situated to get better deals, especially as budget constraints take hold. Simply stated, the government will be in a much improved position to leverage its robust buying power.
Despite concerns some have voiced about posting contracts, it can be accomplished without compromising national security information or contractors’ proprietary commercial or financial information.
In fact, many states have already adopted a more transparent contracting system without negatively impacting their ability to do business with contractors. According to a recent Project On Government Oversight report, at least 33 states proactively post some contracts online. That means two-thirds of the states are ahead of the federal government when it comes to contract transparency.
For many years, groups and Members of Congress have worked in a bipartisan manner to enhance transparency in the area of federal contract spending. In 2006, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), with the support of Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Barack Obama (D-IL), introduced a bill that brought federal spending out of the Dark Ages—the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA). That bill was signed into law (see the Notes section) by President George W. Bush, and it provided the foundation for USASpending.org and learning more about federal spending.
In 2008, all four Senators teamed up again to introduce the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008, which proposed to enhance federal spending transparency. The new bill was intended to expand the scope of information that would become publicly available, including details about the contract bids and the award’s financial terms. Additionally, the bill would have posted searchable copies of “all contracts, subcontracts, purchase orders, task orders, lease agreements and assignments, and delivery orders.”
The 2008 election, pitting Senator Obama against Senator McCain, essentially caused the bill to die in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. But that wasn’t the last we heard about posting contracts online.
In addition to Senator McCaskill, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has also been working on the issue. He not only cosponsored the McCaskill bill, but since 2010 and most recently on March 14, 2017, has also introduced the Public Online Information Act, which will make information from all three branches of government available on the internet, including contracts.
With annual contract spending bouncing back up to nearly $500 billion, oversight of that spending is crucial. Groups from across the political spectrum support efforts to increase disclosure of federal contracts to improve transparency and accountability in federal spending. Posting contracts online should have happened years ago. We will see if the 115th Congress is serious about transparency and accountability in federal spending. If it is, passing Senator McCaskill’s and Senator Tester’s bills will be a good start.