Common Sense 2.0 is a series by former Senator Tom Coburn that will look at modern issues through a first principles lens.
This week marks Sunshine Week, a time to celebrate transparency and open government. The week’s sponsors, The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), say it’s about “your right to know.” The media gets a lot of things wrong but this they have profoundly right.
Our founders drafted the First Amendment because they believed that whenever truth and falsity would be allowed to grapple in a free and open encounter, truth would always prevail. The freedom of expression wasn’t merely a license to opine but a way to preserve liberty for a people committed to self-government.
But truth can’t prevail when basic facts are concealed from public view. Only open debate and transparency can allow the truth – or best policy – to emerge. That’s one reason why our founders wrote these words in our Constitution: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.” (emphasis added in Article I, Section 9, Clause 7).
To our founders, sunshine wouldn’t be merely a week but a permanent part of our political culture.
As President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his treasury secretary in 1802, “We might hope to see the finances of the union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”
In 2006, I teamed up with a freshman senator named Barack Obama to bring Jefferson’s vision into fruition. Instead of publishing information “from time to time” technology – the Internet – gave us the ability to make information available in real-time.
Our bill, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, aimed to create what we called a “Google-like search engine” of all federal spending. Even though we were from opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum we welcomed greater transparency.
I argued the bill would “help end the culture of secrecy in Washington and restore some measure of the public’s confidence in government. Technology has made it possible, like never before, to fulfill our founders’ vision of enabling all citizens to understand our nation’s finances, investigate abuses and hold elected officials accountable.”
Obama said, “All Americans deserve to know where their money is being spent. ‘Googling’ the government will not only help expose and eliminate waste, but dispel misconceptions about the scope of our commitments. Many Americans, for example, assume we are spending a large percentage of our budget on foreign assistance when we are not. Whether you’re on the left or right, there is no worthy argument against transparency.”
Obama and I were right. Transparency is a win-win that gives both sides the information they need to argue for their points of view and then hold their elected officials accountable.
Today, the transparency revolution continues to forge ahead. The organization OpenTheBooks.com created an app that puts the power to track government spending in the palm of every taxpayer’s hand.
Ending the generational theft that is robbing millennials of opportunity and freedom will never be achieved without transparency. ASNE and groups like Watchdog.org, OpenTheBooks.com and others are doing the the country a tremendous service by reminding us that sunshine shouldn’t just be a week but a way of life.