(click here, original article)
Imagine getting control of a family’s checkbook and then making it difficult for the family to find out what checks you write. What an opportunity to splurge on things you do not actually need! As a bonus, you could make gifts to your pals, confident that no one would find out.
That is how federal, state and local governments have operated up until now. The exploited checkbook owners are the taxpayers. Thank goodness, the secrecy shrouding politicians’ spending sprees is coming to an end, thanks to the Web site Open The Books.
Credit Adam Andrzejewski for this major step forward in open government. The Illinois native decided to devote himself to public service following a successful career as an entrepreneur. He and his brother Abram started HomePages Directories, a publishing company with annual revenue approaching $20 million.
Wresting the data from officials of Andrzejewski’s own state was no easy task. The information unquestionably belonged to the people, but Illinois’s Comptroller, Republican Judy Baar-Topinka, refused to turn it over, claiming an "undue burden" exemption under the Freedom of Information Act. Andrzejewski’s organization appealed for help to the Attorney General, Democrat Lisa Madigan, who initially sounded helpful but then sat on her hands for several months.
There never was much credibility to the claim that providing the single year of data that Andrzejewski requested was too big a task for the State of Illinois. The City of Chicago had provided 6.8 million checks covering $74 billion of spending since 2001. Every one of the state’s 870 school districts and all of its colleges and universities had complied, furnishing several years’ worth of data.
In Texas, the Comptroller’s office responded to Open The Books’ request in less than a week. The Lone Star State said it would cost just $104.40 to provide the requested information.
Andrzejewski sued in Cook County, friendly turf for incumbent politicians. Last month, after 18 months of litigation, he emerged victorious. The court found that with 305 employees at the Comptroller’s disposal, three days’ effort to comply with the Freedom of Information request did not constitute an undue burden. Soon, all Illinois spending records going back to 1996 will be online.
Open The Books has introduced an app that allows users to see who is receiving federal dollars in their zip codes. In Illinois, for example, the brother of a state director of agriculture under convicted ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich received nine federally guaranteed loans totaling $1.67 million plus hundreds of thousands in direct payments and subsidies, all related to a hog farm in the village of Teutopolis. Small wonder that state officials were not eager to help citizens get easy access to the checkbook register!
At the federal level, fixing the fiscal problem depends on getting the big things under control. Those include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense spending and interest on the debt. It is nevertheless worthwhile to make Congress squirm about handouts to friends who are better at building political connections than running businesses.
For one thing, allocating capital to its most productive uses is vital to keeping the U.S. economy competitive. The financial markets exist to perform that function. Investors may not always get it right, but at least they are attempting to back the entrepreneurs and managers who will produce the highest risk-adjusted return on the capital entrusted to them.
In contrast, politicians base their funding choices on where they derive their political support, including campaign contributions. It is sheer luck if grants and loans allocated in that manner wind up being the best use of scarce capital. Anyway, crony capitalism is morally wrong, regardless of the outcome.
"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," said Justice Louis Brandeis. The nation’s capital and its statehouses need lots of disinfecting, so Open The Books could not have arrived at a better time. Let us hope investigative reporters, campaign opposition researchers and public-spirited citizens make extensive use of this marvelous new tool.