- - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Forgetfulness is a pandemic in the nation’s capital. Amnesia has struck down countless administration officials called before Congress to explain what they’ve been doing, and why. “I don’t recall” has become the stock answer to questions. Even laptops and hard drives have succumbed to a form of amnesia. It’s a Washington disease, contagious and incurable.

Eight years ago, a young senator from the heartland lent his name as a co-sponsor to a law that would revolutionize government accountability. A website would track all federal expenditures, enabling reporters and the public to easily keep track of what the government was up to. When that senator became president and promised to preside over the most transparent administration in history, it looked like the old backroom way of doing business in Washington would finally fade into the past, like smallpox.

The Government Accountability Office reported last week that the Obama administration has been slacking in keeping USAspending.gov supplied with accurate information. While federal agencies typically turned in required information on government contracts, they skipped out on reporting just about everything else.

Auditors accounted for only 4 percent of the loans, grants and other federally funded awards they reviewed as accurate on USAspending.gov in 2012. Taxpayers have no way to find out what happened to $619 billion — the equivalent of $5,000 going missing for every family in America.

Overall, 342 federal handout programs couldn’t be tracked on USAspending.gov because the administering agencies couldn’t be bothered to answer a few simple questions on the form, including such puzzlers as “What is the name of the entity receiving the award?”; “What was the amount of the award?”; and “What is the address of the entity receiving the award?”

The Departments of Commerce, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Justice, as well as the Office of Personnel Management, turned in the worst compliance rates. They were too busy to follow the law.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who sponsored the transparency law with Mr. Obama, says the administration’s “complete failure in spending transparency hurts our ability to assess the pros and cons of how Washington spends tax dollars … . Without transparency, there can be no accountability.”

The ability to search through contracts, grants and awards is crucial to uncovering the next “bridge to nowhere,” or exposing a politician clearly doing favors as payback to his campaign contributors. It’s essential to finding examples of blowing taxpayer cash, such as the Bureau of Land Management spending $450,000 to “educate” Indian tribes about the imminent danger of global warming. White man speak with forked tongue: The planet hasn’t warmed in 17 years.

The Government Accountability Office encourages federal bureaucracies to follow the law. Senior managers must make agency employees more aware of the reporting requirements and then make sure they track data. The incentive to take these steps must ultimately come from the White House. Alas, despite his good work as a senator and his promises as a president, Mr. Obama’s priorities lie elsewhere.