- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Tea Party movement has its finger on the pulse of the next big thing: fiscal transparency. During this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Tea Party Patriots and several other sponsoring organizations unveiled a new project: the Contract From America, which features a Web site with which users can vote on a number of suggested planks for the final contract, to be unveiled on tax day - April 15. Building on a trend that has emerged over the past few years, several of the suggestions place a strong emphasis on transparency in government.

Lawmakers and activists from around the country have made (and are making) great strides toward greater transparency in government spending in recent years. More than two dozen states have enacted legislation mandating the creation of searchable online databases detailing comprehensive information on government spending, and several governors have taken executive steps to create such Web sites. (The full list of state-spending-transparency Web sites is found at FiscalAccountability.org.)

But while Americans are appreciative of their ability to better scrutinize government expenditures through such Web sites, policy developments in Washington last year have made abundantly clear that true fiscal accountability in government doesn’t just focus on “outcomes” (i.e. government spending), but starts with the legislative process.

Taxpayers were forced to watch helplessly as bills were being whipped through the legislative process at breakneck speed. The trillion-dollar “stimulus” was rammed through Congress just hours after it became publicly available. Similarly, the “cap-and-trade” bill wasn’t even available in its final form when a vote took place in the House of Representatives.

The Tea Party movement formed in part over the anger that ensued over the way these bills were passed and, as such, it is not surprising that Tea Party Patriots have made the requirement that “[e]very bill, in its final form, will be made public seven days before any vote can be taken” part of its draft Contract From America.

The contract’s suggested provision stipulates a significantly longer waiting period than the 72 hours demanded by the “Read the Bill” effort in support of Reps. Brian Baird and John Culberson’s H.R. 554, pending in the House.

While a 72-hour waiting period is certainly preferable to current proceedings, a longer waiting period and online posting requirement of at least five business days would be more in line with the American people’s preference. In a Rasmussen poll conducted in the fall of last year, 83 percent of voters said they thought legislation should be available online for everyone to view before it is voted on by Congress. Of this percentage, 64 percent said they thought the appropriate amount of time for legislation to be available was two weeks.

While there is room for debate over how long an ideal waiting period for legislation would be - intuition would suggest the longer the better, with changes to the legislation setting back the clock - the good news for taxpayers is that the issue is starting to percolate not only in Washington, but also in state capitals where it has the potential to transform policy and politics as it allows taxpayers to partake in political discourse as it happens.

Several states have already introduced legislation to require that final versions of bills be posted online for a certain period of time before they can be voted on. Among them are Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia and Washington.

More states, including Pennsylvania and Kentucky, are expected to have bills introduced to this effect this year.

Just as it took more than one legislative session in some states to get lawmakers to realize the importance and value of transparency in government spending, it may take a while - and some serious nudging from taxpayers - for procedural transparency to take hold everywhere, as recent developments in Washington state show.

After much progress in the past two years, transparency this year took a back seat in the legislative session. A bipartisan bill mandating a 72-hour review period before budget bill votes never saw the light of day and died in committee. Meanwhile, other bills were rushed through without adequate debate, including a “ghost bill” containing only a title that was introduced, heard publicly and voted out of committee within a matter of a few hours. It wasn’t for lack of time that the transparency bill was never considered. After all, as the Washington Policy Center has pointed out, the legislature did find time to consider legislation allowing the operation of golf carts on city roads and allowing for recreational trout fishing in one of Washington state’s lakes.

However, with the issue of transparency and accountability taking center stage thanks to Tea Parties across the country, chances are good that the message taxpayers began sending in Massachusetts, and are continuing to send this election cycle, will resonate in state capitals and that soon there will be less haste and more openness in the legislative process.

Sandra Fabry is executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, a project of Americans for Tax Reform, dedicated to the promotion of transparency, accountability and fiscal restraint in government.

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