The Federal-Contract Derby

A new searchable database allows you to track where your tax dollars go. That’s mostly—but not entirely—good news. Click image to expand.

“Follow the money.” Hal Holbrook, playing Deep Throat in the movie version of All the President’s Men, says that to Robert Redford, who plays Bob Woodward. The real Deep Throat, Mark Felt, never spoke those words; they were invented for the movie by screenwriter William Goldman. Nonetheless, “follow the money” has always been good advice. Now the White House budget office has made it easier for taxpayers to do just that by creating, a searchable database. According to the Washington Post, the Web site resulted from an unusual collaboration between Robert Shea, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group that ordinarily maintains a highly adversarial relationship with the budget office. I applaud this new tool, which should make federal spending more transparent. Like Justice Louis Brandeis, I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Even federal spending that doesn’t cry out for disinfecting would be interesting to learn more about. But as is often the case with money and transparency, may end up accelerating some of the trends it’s meant to expose.

It’s been noted that new executive-pay disclosure requirements introduced in the early 1990s helped to widen the appalling pay gap between bosses and employees by making it easier for the bosses to cite what other corporate chiefs were making when demanding raises from their boards. Disclosure requirements for political spending, by allowing political candidates to know how much their opponents were spending, similarly helped spiral upwards the cost of political campaigns. Now the same may become true for the extent to which members of Congress help themselves to the federal pork barrel.

I am not impressed that the congressional districts that secured the highest dollar amountin federal contracts during fiscal years 2004-2007 were mostly in and around Washington, D.C. Much of the government is run on a contract basis, and a great deal of that business is conducted in or near the capital. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting member of Congress and a Democrat, led the way with $46.2 million, followed by Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., with $18.7 million. Logically speaking, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., * ought to come next with his $7.9 million. Like Moran, he represents the Washington suburbs. But before we get to Van Hollen, there’s Reps. Henry Waxman and Adam Schiff (both California Democrats), with $10.3 million; Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who isn’t even there anymore, yet hauled back $10.2 million in federal contracts to his district (some fraction of the credit should probably go to DeLay’s successor, Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas); and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who brought in $8.4 million.

What did Waxman, Schiff, DeLay, and Clay—or rather, their congressional districts—spend all this money on? In the case of Waxman and Schiff, most of the dollars came from NASA and went to CalTech for space-related science. Nothing very sinister there. CalTech is a highly eminent institution of higher learning, and who doesn’t like the space program? DeLay, too, brought home a lot of NASA dollars, not because of his astonishing clout but because the Johnson Space Center (aka “Houston Control”) was in his congressional district. In DeLay’s case, the money went to private contractors like Boeing and Lockheed. The money spread around Clay’s district came mostly from the Army and the Navy and was used by Boeing to build airplanes and on research and development for “operational systems,” whatever they are (apart from very expensive). Boeing, it won’t surprise you to learn, is currently more flush in U.S. government contracts than any other private company; it’s received more than $12 billionin the first two quarters of the current fiscal year alone.

At the other end of the scale, you have the members of Congress whom I must cruelly tag “the zeroes.” They have secured zero in federal contract dollars going back to fiscal year 2004. Very likely they are to be commended for not wasting precious federal dollars on ill-advised or overpriced projects. But I doubt their opponents in the next election will see it that way. Instead, these unfortunate tribunes probably will be mocked for failing to bring home any fat contracts. They include Reps. Dana Rohrbacher and Mary Bono, both California Republicans; Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who represents Harlem; and—do my eyes deceive me?—Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, D-Ill., the energetic former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and presumed master of old-style retail politics.

See what I mean? Be careful what you wish for, at least when it comes to searchable databases.

Correction, Dec. 15, 2007: An earlier version of this column erroneously referred to Van Hollen’s predecessor, Connie Morella, R-Md., who was voted out in 2002. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)