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Grover Norquist, president of anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, argues in the FT that the next big thing in US politics is transparency: making state budgets, contracts and individual expenditures available to the public on the internet.
“Transparency is advancing rapidly in America”, he writes. “Five states have passed laws recently mandating various levels of transparency, such as posting all contracts and grants and even all state expenditures on the web.”
Mr Norquist believes that Washington will fall last. “The Democrats now running Congress have been moving backwards by making their 38,000 secret earmarks – pet projects of individual members of Congress – less transparent”.
But Mr Norquist claims that there is a history of reform coming to Washington through the states. “The argument that something ‘cannot be done’ or ‘costs too much’ collapses when a dozen states have shown the way”, he writes.
Is accountable transparency the new democracy? And is the US pioneering transparency?
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Transparency can add some extra value to the result of execution of an existing strategy, however it can not change the governmental policies, which have a direct impact on the way of life of American people. Do you share the view that the strategy is a root cause of current situation in economics in the U.S., and a key element, which has to be changed together with the introduction of transparency with the purpose of stabilization of the U.S. economy?
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine
Grover Norquist: Transparency is one tool in maintaining civilian oversight and control of the government. Government is now so large at the national, state and even local and public school level that few – if any – people can understand it all. But put the contracts let by a local school on the web and those people who understand plumbing can examine the plumbing repair expenses. Others will know if the plumber is a direct relative of the school board chairman. This keeps corruption to a dull roar.
Governments often cry poverty in demanding higher taxes. Putting all government spending on the web allows citizens to understand the priorities of the government and its agents.
If they are spending a great deal on international conferences and then claim they don’t have money for pencils this can be pointed out.
It might be better to simply privatise the post office rather than make its spending transparent. But transparency will reduce the waste and fraud even in a state run enterprise that – in much of the world – is run by the real economy not the government.
For what purposes, if any, does Mr Norquist think it is legitimate for government to raise taxes?
Alasdair Rankin, Edinburgh
Grover Norquist: In the case of the United States there is not an example of a state or local government that should raise taxes. Certainly not the federal government. The US government now spends 33% of GDP. National defence is 4% of GDP. Looking at the federal government there are military bases that the Pentagon admits should be closed down to save money. The federal agriculture subsidy program takes money from consumers and enriches a few farmers.
On highways, the David-Bacon Act requires that government spend 25% more than it should to hire union wage rate companies. We could have 25% more roads or 25% less in cost. This is government required waste / fraud / abuse that exists in a law passed to keep African American workers from the south from moving north and getting jobs on federal projects. This racist law continues today with Labour union/democrat party support. Wasteful spending and racist in one evil mix. Why would we raise taxes before we eliminate this evil nonsense.
Americans for Tax Reform always offers to help any city or state look at how it can more efficiently spend the money it takes from its citizens already to avoid taking more. Many states and local governments take our offer and have avoided tax hikes. The ones who really want higher taxes, don’t really want to spend wisely and pass on any such advice showing their true colours.
Should political organisations such as yours also be more transparent about the money they receive and the uses to which it is put?
Ben Cohen, Basel, Switzerland
Grover Norquist: Any so called Non governmental organization – NGO – that receives money taken by the government by force from taxpayers should have to open their books to the public which is paying, however, indirectly, to subsidize the group. The Methodist church which only raises money from individuals is accountable only to its members and donors. Ditto the Catholic church or the association for being nice to civet cats.
In the United States there are organizations whose sole funding comes from the government. They are not really non-government organizations. They are taxpayer funded groups that hide from the limited amount of transparency that exists already and engage in political activity that would be clearly illegal if done by the state of Massachusetts, the city of Chicago or the Department of Transportation.
What are the triggers for this kind of transparency? Is it reaction to the Bush administration? Does it rely on the political will of individual governors?
Richard Edgar, FT.com
Grover Norquist: At the national level the call for greater transparency has focused on earmarks, those congressionally driven spending efforts such as ”bridges to nowhere” or funding for one’s favourite high school or college, or building a rainforest in Iowa. This is important, but is really the tip of the iceberg. We need all federal contracts and grants to be completely transparent. There was a good start on this by Obama and Coburn, two senators from Illinois and Oklahoma...but the actual contract is not yet made public. That will come soon in an amendment to the original legislation.
Also, this Coburn/Obama bill only catches contracts and grants of more than $25,000. It should include all contracts and grants.
At the state level, the drive comes from the initiative of a few governors and state legislators who think this is a good idea and everyone else is too embarrassed to oppose it publicly.
You mention five states that have passed laws on transparency. Where do you think the tipping point is – the point when other states are compelled to follow suit? And what states do you think will follow next?
Grover Norquist: Florida was prepared to enact full transparency requirements on all local governments in the state this spring. The underlying legislation passed at the last minute and transparency (although agreed to) was not in it. Florida should be first out of the box next year.
This year we expect to see action in Wisconsin and Michigan. Republican legislators pushing a Democrat governor to support.
In Nevada a democrat state elected official the controller (not the comptroller) is moving ahead of the Republican governor.
Once proposed to the people of a state or local government it just makes sense. Most of this information is already legally in the public domain...it just isn’t readily available to the public.
Going back a ways we can credit Newt Gingrich with putting the actual federal legislation on the web...the Thomas system, named after Thomas Jefferson. Before that was done in 1995 there were high paid lawyers in DC whose job was to run down and Xerox legislation as it was prepared and their clients had the laws before others. Now everyone is on the same footing and knows what the laws will do as soon as they are written and hopefully a while before they are passed.
In what way is this meaningful? Isn’t this open to abuse as we don’t know which accounts are being put online?
Richard Martin, London
Grover Norquist: One should always look long and hard at all “reforms” to avoid making things worse or inventing new problems that may make the old problems look good.
We cannot see a problem with putting the actual wording of contracts and grants on the web. This stuff is public information. All transparency laws allow some redacting for “sensitive” material. For instance the names or addresses of undercover cops. How much money the bus drivers or bus companies are making taking kids to government school is not a protected number.
Our goal is to have all spending online minus only super secret weapons systems or the equivalent. This is your money the government is spending.
I hope that we eventually get the same requirements for all foreign aid. No money to any third world country that does not keep open, transparent books so even if they don’t let their people vote their citizens would know how and where they are spending their money. I do believe this will greatly reduce corruption.
Re: “lazy-journalist-wins-a-Pulitzer” legislation. Doesn’t this rely on financial journalists and highly motivated bloggers to decipher the accounts for us? The more information that is put online, the harder it is to make sense of any of it.
Darren Dodd, NY
Grover Norquist: The best transparency laws and/or executive orders require that the budget and contracts be put on the web in a searchable form. The Kansas law sets up a commission to make sure that the material on the web is easy to access.
It will probably take several iterations to have surfing your city budget as easy as googling other information. But simply getting the information on the web is an improvement on having it in a book in city hall or the basement of the state capitol. Journalists will certainly demand better search engines as will citizens who get used to having access to what before was “secret” stuff.
Will Washington really become transparent? The current Republicans are not in favour, and nor are the Democrats as you point out. Surely the problem is that there are always practical objections and a lack of political will?
Grover Norquist: I believe both parties have conspired to make much of how they spend our tax dollars opaque. They each have an interest in being seen as opponents of corruption. One party – it may differ state by state or over time in the national government – will see it in their interest to side with open government and they will either win power this way or the other team will concede and open the books.
At the state level openness has always won when it became an issue. What has changed now is technology. The books and contracts can be visible to everyone with a computer. In the old days transparency and openness allowed those already in city hall to sit in on meetings or come by and pick up a book with financial data in it.
According to the New York Times, the number of Congressional earmarks rose from about 3,000 in 1996 to almost 16,000 in 2005. The Times also reports that, so far this year, about 6,500 have been included in bills approved by the House, suggesting that the pace has slowed considerably under the new Democratic leadership, though we will have to wait for the end of the session to learn the final amount (I don’t know where your 38,000 figure comes from - it may represent requested items, rather than those that have actually found their way into legislation). Republicans controlled Congress (except for the Senate in 01-02) from 1994 to 2006, when the number of earmarks more than quintupled. Why were Republicans so eager to expand earmarks? As an influential lobbyist and party activist throughout this time, what did you do to oppose the growth of earmarks before the 2006 Coburn-Obama bill?
Grover Norquist: Earmarks are the visible part of the problem. The reason the press has focused on them was that Republican backbenchers revolted against the spending practices of the old bulls. Taxpayer groups such as Americans for Tax Reform have supported all efforts to end earmarks or limit them or at a minimum make them transparent.
But if all earmarks went away it is a few billion. The federal government is spending two trillion.
I welcome the greater attention that earmarks have given to overspending and wasteful spending in general. We must never focus on earmarks at the expense of focusing on the entire budget. Looking at earmarks is an improvement over not looking at any of the spending....but we need to demand more.
It is interesting that the Democrats, having benefited from Republican internal criticism of earmarks, have increased their numbers and tried to make them less transparent. The Democrats removed all transparency reforms for earmarks from their ”ethics” bill.
ATR has urged the president to veto the present ”ethics” bill as the sham it is. All earmarks should be transparent, their author should be public and the congressman, his family and staff should be banned from ever working for the entity that gets such an earmark.... too many of these guys, staff and families get jobs – sinecures – from universities they shovelled money to when they were in congress.
Financial transparency certainly seems to be a critical step to better government. Would you agree that it still requires the press to distribute the data to the voters, and that much of the press may be reluctant to do so? Or do you expect that legislators will be embarrassed enough by the availability of this data to the cognoscenti to be more careful with the public purse.
Grover Norquist: Yes to all the above.
I have spoken with leaders of state legislatures that were all excited about transparency and then asked if they might start this after they bought new furniture.
They understood that all decisions will be made differently in the light of day: tables and desks from IKEA.
Some local elected officials have predicted that putting their spending on the web would save taxpayers 5-10% on all new contracts and spending. I think the press will see this as an ally rather than a competitor. Any old media that doesn’t pick up on the newly available transparency data will give way to bloggers who make aggressive use of it.
This is very empowering for media. Right now most journalists sit and wait for a “leak” or “press release” from politicians or bureaucrats.
With transparency, they can find stuff out themselves. They can be real investigative journalists. Newspapers and TV stations will hire financial and accounting experts. This is a huge change for the media.