Obama Administration's Drive for Transparency Between a Rock and a Hard Place

President Obama has been a strong advocate of open government since he and Tom Coburn passed the Obama-Coburn bill in 2006. Coming into the Presidency he has walked it like he talks it -- writing very aggressive calls for transparency and reporting into the Recovery Act and appointing Federal super sleuth Earl Devaney to head up his Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.

But now the administration is finding itself between a rock and a hard place on the issue.

The rock is the federal bureaucracy:

The $787 billion stimulus package requires unprecedented levels of transparency -- and some federal managers and auditors are worried those requirements will place unfair scrutiny on their agencies.
Many agencies are concerned that state and local agencies won't provide accurate data. They often won't be able to review that data before it's posted online -- so a state-level mistake could end up reflecting badly on federal agencies, too.
Auditors worry that agencies won't have a chance to provide context for that data -- that citizens will find small mistakes in stimulus spending and turn them into larger problems.
And other managers fear that they'll be inundated by thousands of comments from citizens concerned about stimulus programs.

The hard place is the business community:

U.S. businesses expect that a greater focus on transparency and accountability in government spending of bailout and stimulus money will result in more regulations, according to an industry study released on Monday.

Deloitte, an audit and consulting firm, said it surveyed more than 1,540 business professionals from a range of industries including financial services, energy and telecommunications.

In the survey executives were asked if they think the focus on transparency and accountability will lead to more rules for all industries and if they think it is possible to link greater transparency to spending from the fiscal stimulus.

Eighty percent of those surveyed said they think there will be more regulations but about 58 percent said they didn't think greater transparency could be effectively linked to spending resulting from the fiscal stimulus.

These are fairly minor impediments though compared to the difficultly of actually compiling the data that the administration has promised will be delivered by Recovery.gov. It appears that they're already falling behind the private sector on tracking the stimulus spending:

President Obama held a widely-covered press conference this week touting the 2000th transportation project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And Vice President Biden said, "The Recovery Act is being implemented with speed, transparency and accountability." With this kind of press coverage, one might believe that the government is staying on top of the Recovery spending. However, our research shows that the actual number of transportation projects obligated thus far is closer to 5000, indicating that not only is Recovery Act funding unclear to the taxpaying American public, it isn't even transparent to those in Washington who are doling out this massive amount of spending.

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Our National Values- Reflected In Our Spending Priorities:NOT

A few years ago, somebody handed me a pen at a community event that had a little handle on the side that you could pull out, revealing two charts that unfurled to around 5 x 7, large enough to make their points. (current versions below)


Total Outlays (Federal Funds): $2,650 billion
MILITARY: 54% and $1,449 billion
NON-MILITARY: 46% and $1,210 billion

Thinking about the current debate over the utility of bank bailouts  vs. universal healthcare I was reminded of them. - I keep wondering, IF 60-70% of Americans want universal healthcare, WHY are our (bad?) political actors saying that its off the table?
What is tying their hands? Perhaps the charts help explain one of the many reasons why. We are spendng more money on our military than the whole rest of the world, combined, is spending on theirs!

(US on left, rest of world on right)

Source for 2009 pie chart figures:"The pie chart figures are from an analysis of detailed tables in the "Analytical Perspectives" book of the Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009. The figures are federal funds, which do not include trust funds -- such as Social Security -- that are raised and spent separately from income taxes. What you pay (or don't pay) by April 15, 2008, goes to the federal funds portion of the budget. The government practice of combining trust and federal funds began during the Vietnam War, thus making the human needs portion of the budget seem larger and the military portion smaller. "
Thats it.  The above quoted text and images come from this site.

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Credibility: Wm. Black Wins It; Goldman CFO Loses It

News events appear to be unfolding in a virtually symmetric fashion over the past 24 hours to indicate that the shit may, indeed, be hitting the fan with regard to congressional TARP/bailout investigations into various, potential improprieties that may have occurred, in the early Fall of 2008, between senior management at AIG and Goldman Sachs. Further exacerbating these realities, it  is a matter of highly-publicized record that all of this played out under the direct supervision of some of the highest-ranking U.S. officials within the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve.

William Black, the former deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp during the U.S. Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980's, is interviewed in this week's Barron's Magazine in what may be an even more provocative piece than his highly publicized Bill Moyers' interview last week.  As many reading this may recall, Black's PBS interview was widely covered in the blogosphere last week, including a very spirited discussion between multiple DKos' diarists.

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Poor, Poor Chris Dodd

The overreach in bailout greed is taking its first victim.  This is the way it is supposed to work.  You don't start talking about knocking off these sell-outs nine months before the primary election, you start talking about it NOW.

Say something bad about the NRA if you are Republican, see how long it takes for an exploratory committee to be announced to bounce you out of Washington.  The Right knows how to do it.  When their reps take a position considered a betrayal of the base, they don't wring their hands and expect further betrayals.  They act.

Hey, we're learning.

Will Dodd rise to the challenge?  Don't get me wrong.  I lived in Connecticut when Dodd was first elected, and we were all excited at this young new reform politician.  We were called "The Dodd Squad." 

But there comes a time when they have obviously simply lost their way, good men and women as they might be.  No one, and I mean no one, is giving my children's inheritance to a bunch of billionaires.

Chris Dodd is getting a rude lesson in the wrath of the people.  At 33 points, his lowest number yet, it's Houston, we've got a problem.

This economic crisis will not get better.  It will get worse.  And that's what Chris has got to worry about.

Dodd to face Democratic primary challenger

Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie, one of Sen. Chris Dodd's leading critics in the Connecticut press, has the scoop on the first primary challenger to the embattled senator:

   Greenwich, Connecticut Democrat Roger Pearson told me he has formed a committee to explore a run for his party's 2010 nomination. The former First Selectman of the Republican bastion says that like many others he "is very disaffected" with Dodd, who has "really disappointed a lot of people...I don't believe in career politics or career politicians," taking swipe at five term incumbent Dodd, who has fallen 16 points behind Republican former congressman Rob Simmons, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released yesterday.

MyDD guy Matt Stoller mulled primary challenges to senators last October:

I'm going to assume that the Senate, as the most conservative institution on our Federal level, will be a major breeze to the right in terms of health care, trade agreements, civil liberties, economic justice, etc.  Let's then examine the playing field for 2010; the environment for 2010 is unpredictable and probably chaotic, with a sharp recession on its way and a credit crisis here now.

I'm particularly interested in possible primaries to the Democrats, the party that the lobbyists are going to fete repeatedly and intensely in 2009 and 2010, much to our chagrin.  I'm sure there will be retirements, but here's the list of Democrats up for reelection:

Bayh, Evan - (D - IN)
Boxer, Barbara- (D - CA)
Dodd, Christopher J.- (D - CT)
Dorgan, Byron L.- (D - ND)
Feingold, Russell D.- (D - WI)
Inouye, Daniel K.- (D - HI)
Leahy, Patrick J.- (D - VT)
Lincoln, Blanche L.- (D - AR)
Mikulski, Barbara A.- (D - MD)
Murray, Patty- (D - WA)
Reid, Harry- (D - NV)
Salazar, Ken- (D - CO)
Schumer, Charles E.- (D - NY)

The economic crisis is likely to soften up incumbents as only an economic crisis can, as Americans previously fat and happy keep raiding food pantries and losing homes.  This is the cold water which jars habitual voting patterns.  Anger and political involvement increase when a threshold of greed is crossed, beyond what is normal and expected of our ruling classes.  Americans are waking up in disbelief, staring at empty nest eggs.  And it didn't just happen.  Somebody did it to them.  And those guys who are getting bailed out, their idea of pain is having to buy a smaller offshore villa.

For Dodd's part in last year's Bank of America-Countrywide bailout, the L.A. Times blog says "Bank of America's political action committee (PAC) has donated $20,000 to Dodd since he became chairman of the banking panel 17 months ago. From January 2007 to March 2008, Bank of America employees have donated at least $50,400 to Dodd's campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics."

When it sinks in that a mere $114 million in campaign contributions and lobbying money bought $300 billion in TARP funds for banks who made bad bets, American Idol will no longer keep the rabble diverted, especially if they have to shut off the cable to buy food. That's a whopping 260,000 PERCENT return on investment.  Ka-ching! is heard across the DC cocktail circuit while you are worried sick.  The top one-percenters in income who by themselves get 1/3 of the pie are going bargain hunting in the stock market, picking up the stocks in your IRA mutual fund that you had to cash in at fire sale prices to pay your rent, and they are buying them with the bailouts you are paying for.  Sucks, doesn't it?

Even Trump admits he has lost plenty of net worth, but The Donald says times are good:

"We're going up.  We're buying things we couldn't have dreamed of buying two years ago. And we have a lot of cash."

The way the pie is now divided and how it got there is neatly summarized in these two charts, from the Too Much Newsletter on Excess and Inequality:

Ronald Reagan was only the first act in the action which continued under Clinton and the Bushes until the grand finale - now -  when they steal the last of your childrens' inheritance and disappear to places like Monaco and off-shore havens like "The Colony." Too Much reported just last September:

several top Wall Streeters purchased villas in The Colony, a new Caribbean luxury project touted as Jamaica's "most expensive gated oceanfront development on record." The villas run up to $7 million each and carry a $72,000 annual fee that gives owners 60 days of butler, chef, and maid service.

When you own a third of the whole American pie, that kind of money is no problem.

The money sure isn't going to the schmucks getting laid off at these institutions.  It sure isn't going toward a 2-year voucher for any worker training you choose, help with your mortgage, and jobs programs.  That's because you aren't the one who gave $114 million in campaign money to fewer than 100 men and women, especially those sitting on banking and finance committees and sub-committees.  

Primary challenges to the grey eminences like Dodd are hard to come by in ordinary times, but these are anything but ordinary times.  Now, who's next?

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Piecing Together a Fuller Picture of Stimulus Spending

ProPublica posts a pretty withering critique of Recovery.gov:

Recovery.gov is the tip of the spear for the Obama administration's stimulus transparency plan. The site is intended as a one-stop shop, with comprehensive weekly reports on stimulus progress from federal agencies. As the director of the president's Office of Management and Budget wrote, the site's purpose is to allow "citizens to hold the government accountable for every dollar spent."

But, after three weeks of reporting, the numbers reveal bleak generalities - stimulus money flowing at a trickle - and few details to clarify the data or overcome the layman's obstacles to interpreting it.
What the reports won't tell you is how the money is spent, exactly who's receiving it or whether it was spent appropriately. Also, the spreadsheets are pocked with irregularities of formatting and language that alarm even experienced data diggers.

"It's a great, noble intention," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability program, who described Recovery.gov as an iterative project and said he was optimistic. "But right now, it's not a site that you can do a lot with."

Nancy Scola at Personal Democracy Forum reports on a private sector compliment:

Onvia, a Washington State company that connects would-be contractors with government contracts -- has released Recovery.org. (Count Joe Biden extraordinarily confused.) The company is making the argument that it has taken them ten years and more than a hundred employees to develop the contacts and subject-matter expertise necessary to track government contracts all the way down to the local school board or highway authority or mosquito abatement program that actually doles out federal dollars to contractors. The Onvia site is offering up what they know on ARRA contracts for free. (The company's hope, of course, is that you might find their information valuable enough to pay for a fuller taste.) OMB's Recovery.gov has its head in the right place, the company argues, but the job is simply too big and too complex to approach from the top down. Do they have a point? One piece of evidence in favor of their interpretation: USAspending.gov, the product of legislation co-sponsored by a junior senator by the name of Barack Obama, is still struggling to drill down to the subcontractor level some three years after its launch.

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