Government Reform

Calling All Presidential Candidates: Who Will Stand Up and Be Transparent?

Meet the only three would-be chief execs who will dare to tell you how the government spends your money.

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Presidential aspirants Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) don't agree on very much.

When it comes to immigration, stem-cell research, abortion, health care, trade--you name it, basically--these three get along about as well as Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, and George Steinbrenner did during the Yankees' legendarily fractious 1977 season.

But they alone among would-be White House occupants have signed a trans-partisan initiative that has the potential to radically transform not just the presidency but the way the federal government does business. Obama, Brownback, and Paul have all signed The Oath of Presidential Transparency, a pledge to follow through on two actions.

First, signatories agree to conduct "THE most transparent Administration in American history--a lofty, laudable, far-reaching goal. This oath signals that whether it's earmarks, directives, or ongoing management of taxpayer expenditures, the goal of transparency will be evident throughout all policy making aspects of your Administration."

Second, signatories commit their presidential administrations "to full and robust implementation of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFAT Act) of 2006." The heart of that legislation, co-sponsored by Obama and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in the Senate and signed into law last year by President Bush, is the creation of a free, searchable website that will list every recipient of every federal award.

Regardless of ideology or partisan affiliation, this is something that every American--with the possible exception of lawmakers who prefer to shroud their activities out of guilt, shame, fear, or some combination of the same--can get behind. Estimated to cost a relatively measly $15 million between now and 2011, the searchable database will give watchdog groups, government reformers, and regular citizens unprecedented amounts of information about where taxpayer dollars are going and how their elected representatives are behaving.

"Knowledge is power," said Francis Bacon. And knowledge of how the federal government is spending our money is a crucial step forward in empowering voters and improving the functioning of American democracy.

The FFAT- authorized database, which will be operated by the Office of Management and Budget, is supposed to be up and running by January 1, 2008. But it's one thing to pass well-intentioned legislation and another thing entirely to implement and enforce it.

Hence, The Oath of Presidential Transparency, a project spearheaded by the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes the print and online editions of reason. Joining together three dozen diverse groups ranging from the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the voter-rights outfit Velvet Revolution, the Oath provides voters with a crystal-clear understanding of the candidates' priorities when it comes to government spending. (Go here for a complete list of participating organizations.)

"Signing the Oath of Presidential Transparency was a no brainer for me," says Rep. Paul, the first candidate to put his name on the pledge. " I will aggressively pursue full openness and accountability within my administration if elected president."

"Every American has the right to know how the government spends their tax dollars, but for too long that information has been largely hidden from public view," says Sen. Obama, whose role in creating FFAT can't be overstated. "This historic law will lift the veil of secrecy in Washington and ensure that our government is transparent and accountable to the American people. And I will be proud to fully implement and enforce this law as president."

"Americans need to feel they can trust their government," says Sen. Brownback. "As president I will continue my record of supporting policies that increase government transparency and boost confidence in our democratic system."

The Reason Foundation's director of policy development, Amanda K. Hydro, tells me that she has repeatedly contacted the campaigns of every declared presidential candidate in the Republican and Democratic parties who met Federal Election Commission filing requirements.

So far, only Obama, Brownback, and Paul stand in the sunlight by supporting transparency in government spending. As the 2008 race for the White House shifts into high gear, perhaps Hillary Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, and the other candidates will take the pledge for transparency (if and when they do, you'll read about it on Reason Online).

Or perhaps they will see fit to stay in the shadows.

Which, in its own way, will tell prospective voters all they need to know come November 2008.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason.