Blog-islation

Bloggers can get a bill passed. But will they follow through to see that it's implemented properly?

Bloggers have scored many significant victories in the political sphere in the past few years, bringing down some high-profile politicians in the process. Now they're starting to influence the legislative process, too. Which raises the question: Will they be around for the next phase, monitoring whether the projects they have pushed are funded appropriately and implemented properly?

A case in point: Earlier this year, members of the House and Senate took up the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. The legislation would, its backers said, "create a Google-like search engine and database" that tracks $1 trillion in federal spending on contracts, grants, earmarks and loans. The bill quickly attracted dozens of co-sponsors. But then some senator or senators placed an unpublicized hold on the measure, slowing its progress.

That's when the blogosphere swung into action. A swarm of followers of popular blogs across the political spectrum deluged senators' offices with calls in an effort to uncover exactly who was holding up the bill. Finally, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, 'fessed up, saying through a spokesman that he was concerned the measure might add an "unnecessary layer of bureaucracy." Then Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., confirmed that he, too, had held up the legislation.

The revelation that the two senators most prominently identified with pork-barrel spending were standing in the way of the creation of the database only served to increase the bill's momentum. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously in early September, and the House quickly followed up with its own approval of the bill.

While the measure's opponents attracted the most attention, its list of backers in the Senate was no less significant. That roster included Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Barack Obama, D-Ill.; Hilary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; and John Kerry, D-Mass. What all of those senators have in common is that they have at least been mentioned as potential presidential candidates in 2008. For them, the bill is an end unto itself. Merely passing it enables them to say they've offered a solution to the pork problem (without actually having to cut any specific spending projects) and brought sunshine to federal operations.

Of course, in the real world, the legislation is just the beginning of the process of trying to implement a system that tracks what agencies are spending and allows easy access to the data. On that front, Stevens' concerns about bureaucratic aspects of the endeavor can't be dismissed out of hand. The federal government already publishes several publicly accessible databases of information on federal contracts and grants. These systems, which cost many millions of dollars to build and maintain, were designed in part to provide exactly the kind of easy access to spending information that the backers of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act sought. The new project would spend millions of dollars more to layer another system on top of the ones that have proved to be less than effective.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new system would cost $9 million to build in its first two years, and $2 million a year after that to maintain. That adds up to $15 million in spending between 2007 and 2011. Will that be enough to get a simple, usable Web-based system?

The watchdog organization OMB Watch is in the process of developing its own database of agencies' spending under a $234,000 grant. Officials at the organization say its site, which was slated to debut in beta form in early October, does much of what the proposed federal site would do. Other experts, though, have their doubts about whether $15 million will be enough to do everything the bill envisions. And even the folks at OMB Watch acknowledge that neither they nor the government will be able to create a fully Google-like site for federal spending.

The bloggers have shown they can goad Congress into taking action. But achieving what they've demanded will be no mean feat. So let's hope they stick around to make sure we don't spend another $15 million-or more-failing to get meaningful information about the government's spending habits.

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