Monday, August 28, 2006

It’s a sign of just how hot an issue pork-barrel spending has become that the biggest game in political Washington this summer is trying to smoke out the senator who is blocking a bill to create a searchable database of federal contracts and grants.

The bill has the support of the Bush administration and activists on widely divergent sides of the political spectrum. It also passed a Senate committee without any objections, so the unknown senator is annoying many people.

Sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, the bill would require the administration to create a searchable Web site that would list the name and amount of any federal grant, contract or other award of money amounting to $25,000 or more.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, tried to win speedy passage just before the Senate left for its summer break, but at least one senator objected anonymously.

Now, a Web site dedicated to exposing wasteful government spending, is conducting a public campaign to smoke out the obstructor or obstructors, while blogs on both sides of the political spectrum have weighed in, demanding action on the bill. Mr. Frist has also vowed to get into the act, promising to try to pass the bill again when Congress returns from its break next month.

“For reasons of policy and politics, many bloggers are rightly outraged that S. 2590 was shot down when I attempted to bring it up for a vote prior to the August recess,” Mr. Frist wrote in an entry last week on the blog of Volpac, his political action committee (

The Federal Times reported that one senator has a “secret hold” on the bill. Holds are an unofficial part of Senate parliamentary tradition that allow a single senator to delay action anonymously.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Frist said it’s not clear how hard and fast the hold is. Sometimes holds are simply a way for a senator to earn time to learn more about a bill, though other times the intent is to scuttle the bill.

The Bush administration is backing the bill as a way to improve accountability.

“We want to see the bill enacted, so whatever we can do to be supportive of Senators Coburn’s and Obama’s efforts, we’ll be supportive,” said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

“What we like is transparency. We believe that the more public information that’s available about how programs work, about where we’re spending our money, who’s getting grants, who’s getting contracts, the more accountability there is,” Mr. Johnson said.

So far, Porkbusters has cleared a little more than a quarter of the Senate of suspicion.

“It’s all about focusing on an individual and uncovering secrets,” said Glenn Reynolds of, one of the forces behind Porkbusters. “Fortunately, a member of the Senate played into our hands.”

He said enough people in Washington know who is obstructing the bill that if the hold continues, the senator’s name will come out.

The effort is already producing some interesting results, including an e-mail from a Senate staffer who accused Porkbusters of a “guilty until proven innocent approach.” Mr. Reynolds, who declined to release the name of the staffer or the office he works for, said it shows members of Congress are feeling the heat.

Understanding the power of wasteful spending as an issue, House Democrats this past week announced their own “truth squad” to target waste, fraud and abuse in Hurricane Katrina relief spending.

Mr. Frist could try to overcome the hold by forcing the issue onto the floor using the same procedure used to end a filibuster, which would require 60 votes.

The House passed a bill earlier this year that creates a database for grants only.

In his blog entry, Mr. Frist said the issue underscores the stakes in November’s congressional elections.

“There is a real choice between Democrats and Republicans on matters of taxes and spending,” he wrote. “Indeed, just this year, when we wrote our tight budget, Senate Republicans defeated constant Democrat attempts to bloat spending and hike your taxes by billions of dollars.”

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