How much did it cost you to teach pigeons how to gamble, or to study the impact of classical music on cats, or to determine that a sour cream and onion potato chip looks like Elvis? It is anyone’s guess, despite a federal law giving you the right to know.
In 1988, former Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) said that taxpayers “ought to be informed how much money comes from Federal sources in any program, project, or grant activity.” He turned this aspiration for transparency into a legal mandate. Since 1989, every project or grant funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Education (ED), and Department of Labor (DOL) must disclose in a press release or other documents how much federal funds were used for a project. This came to be known as the Stevens amendment and covers more than $500 billion in federal grants every year.
The mandate has been in place for 30 years. But nobody seems to know about it. And they definitely don’t follow it.
A joint oversight report between our organization and White Coat Waste found a 100 percent failure rate in compliance with the Stevens Amendment among animal research studies conducted by Ivy League universities. A follow-on report on Stevens Amendment enforcement from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that HHS, ED, and DOL “do not monitor nor do they have processes in place to oversee grantee compliance” and cannot “ensure that grant funds are being expended in full accordance with these statutory and regulatory requirements.”
This woeful lack of enforcement and compliance deprives Americans of the ability to track how their taxpayer dollars are spent.
This year’s Tournament of Government Waste features three entries from Senator Ernst that all failed to comply with the transparency law. That means that studies on a potato chip resembling Elvis, gambling pigeons, and pampered cats were all conducted without the public being privy to how much of their tax dollars supported it.
This flies in the face of Senator Stevens original wish that taxpayers ought to be informed about how their tax dollars are being used and it’s a step back in our drive towards greater transparency across the federal government. The American people are financing a $4.5 trillion annual enterprise. The American public must know what projects are funded by their tax dollars and what we are getting out of this spending. This requires rigorous oversight which can never be accomplished without transparency.
Fortunately, Senator Ernst, along with fellow tournament participants Sens. Lankford and Paul, introduced the Cost Openness and Spending Transparency Act (COST Act), which would broaden and strengthen the Stevens Amendment requirements. Specifically, it would require that every project that receives federal funding across the entire federal government – not just HHS, ED and DOL – must disclose in a public document the amount of federal dollars it received, and the percentage of the budget derived from federal support. To put teeth in the measure, the COST Act would hold back 25% of funding from recipients that are not in compliance with the disclosure requirements.
The COST Act would put a price tag on federal projects for all taxpayers to see which would go a long way toward enhancing government accountability and helping to root out waste, fraud, and duplication.