November 12th, 2011
01:00 PM ET

Stanger: No transparency, no smart government

Editor's Note:Allison Stanger is Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics and Chair of the Political Science Department at Middlebury College Middlebury College. She is the author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.

By Allison Stanger - Special to CNN

Former President Bill Clinton’s compelling new book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, just came out this week.  Trust in government is at a record low of 15% and Congress’ approval rating has plummeted to single digits. Convincing voters that government is actually capable of once again serving ordinary Americans is a tough sell, even for a man of Clinton’s superhuman persuasive powers.

Both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party Movements are skeptical of the claim that government can be smart when the political system has been captured by moneyed interests.  In response, the Obama administration maintains that we can somehow restore America to greatness while tolerating politics as usual, even though candidate Obama once promised he would “change the way Washington works.”  Small wonder the electorate is starting to tune out.

There is a better way.  The crony capitalism that has fueled inequality and systematically undermined the social contract thrives in the shadows.  Rather than railing at the rich, which many Americans have misinterpreted as mocking the American dream, the White House should instead refocus on the imperative of openness for democracy.

Here the president has a built-in advantage; he understands the importance of transparency and championed open government as a senator.  Transparency levels the playing field so that our self-evident truths –life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness –belong to all Americans, not a privileged few.  That’s why both Democrats and Republicans alike can agree on the importance of transparency.  As founder James Madison once remarked, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

It is worth recalling that Senator Obama’s finest legislative accomplishment was the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA).  FFATA stipulated that all information on how taxpayer money is spent be provided on “a single searchable web site, accessible by the public at no cost to access.” It is admirably straightforward legislation that comes in at under five pages, with no fine print, the antithesis of the 1.000-page, impenetrable draft legislation that Congress specializes in producing of late. FFATA is thus a symbol of– as well as a catalyst for– transparency.

Yet efforts to make the FFATA vision reality have stalled rather than blossomed under the Obama presidency.  Senator Obama championed the Federal Funding Transparency and Accountability Act but President Obama has done little to see the spirit and letter of that law upheld.   From a short-term perspective, the assumption of real power will always transform the virtues of openness from asset to liability.

Returning to the vision that got him elected would recommit both the Democratic Party and the White House to telling the American people the truth.  Taxpayer money, both budgetary and extra-budgetary, flows out the door, and there is no single mechanism, as the one FFATA mandates, that enables anyone to follow the money from tax revenue to its final destination.  We have multiple sources for financial data: USAspending.gov, Recovery.gov, and Financialstability.gov, but no clear delineation of how these data bases interact and overlap.  Much of the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] spending in particular remains shrouded in secrecy.

I may be losing you with the geeky talk of web sites and data.  But my basic point is a simple one.  A single household can’t manage for the future without knowing where the family’s money goes.  We can’t expect Washington to get its financial house in order without a clear picture of how taxpayer money is being spent.  That’s what FFATA was meant to provide, and that is what has yet to be delivered.

America’s fiscal house is in such disarray, in part because we are throwing money at problems, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the stimulus package, without having appropriate accounting mechanisms in place to evaluate whether that money has been well spent. One might assume that our leaders have a secret comprehensive data base they use to chart our financial future, but that is not the case.  Both elites and the general public are in the dark on this matter.  Fulfilling the spirit and letter of FFATA is thus a prerequisite for all the other things we must do to get the country back on track.

The biggest reason why our faltering political system is unable to serve the public interest is that its complex workings have become shrouded in secrecy.  Opacity breeds corruption, and corruption further undermines trust in government.  We cannot rescue government by the people from our current government by checkbook if neither the American people nor our elected officials can follow the money.  Senator Obama once embraced this perspective.  It is time for President Obama to do the same.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Allison Stanger.

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Topics: Governance

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The author made a point that Obama should translate his words into action by putting the FFATA together. In light of the looming budget cuts, it's useful to know where the axe should fall.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:43 am | Reply
  2. In pursuit of perfection

    If FFATA had been slightly longer, maybe it could have made sure that it was implemented. We need to realize the government's problems are difficult. We expect perfect solutions. We want a 5 page bill, but a 5 page law isn't detailed enough to be implemented. We want the government to cut spending, but not cut any services to us. We expect economic growth no matter what is going on internationally. Maybe if the American people had a bit lower expectations of government, then our government could stop blaming each other for not accomplishing the impossible and sit down and get some good work done.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply

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