Keeping the public’s business open to public scrutiny is fundamental in any democracy. You might be surprised at how many people in government don’t see it that way. That is why I have fought for creative ways to shine a brighter light on how taxpayer money is spent – or misspent.
Especially at a time when we have a $14 trillion debt and an annual deficit of $1.6 trillion, transparency can provide a reality check on wasteful and even fraudulent practices.
Let me give you just a few examples of things I’ve been working on.
After the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior by people on Wall Street caused the economy to collapse three years ago, Congress and the Federal Reserve bailed out the big banks and huge corporations. I voted no. I asked Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke who got those trillions of dollars in secret loans. He wouldn’t say. So last year, I secured a provision in the financial reform law that required the Fed to disclose who received the loans during the financial crisis.
The results were jaw dropping. The Fed issued more than $9 trillion in emergency loans and other assistance in more than 21,000 short-term loans and other financial arrangements. Goldman Sachs received nearly $600 billion, Morgan Stanley received nearly $2 trillion, and Citigroup received $1.8 trillion to help them survive the catastrophe they created. Also receiving bailout funds were big corporations like General Electric, McDonalds, and Caterpillar. Many foreign companies, such as Toyota and Mitsubishi, also took American taxpayer help.
At the very least, the American people, still suffering from the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, deserved to know just how their money was used.
Another provision I secured in the reform bill requires a detailed, top-to-bottom audit of the Federal Reserve’s activities during this bailout. These results are due later this year and will shed further light on the influence of powerful banking and corporate interests over public resources.
On another front, the Department of Defense this year disclosed details of its own long track record of doing business with corporations that have a history of fraud. They didn’t just volunteer the information. Congress inserted a provision that I proposed in a military spending bill requiring the Pentagon to pull together public records in a way they never had done before. The report was shocking. The Department of Defense admitted to paying $285 billion over a three-year span to hundreds of military contractors that had committed fraud against the Pentagon during the same period. Although many of these largest defense contractors in the country had a history of repeatedly defrauding taxpayers, government officials continued to funnel money their way. I hope bringing this information to light will make it less likely for the practice to continue in the future.
The Pentagon doesn’t have a monopoly on contractor fraud. Did you know the federal government keeps a comprehensive database of misconduct by government contractors? They do. For some reason, they didn’t want you to know about it. The database was open only to contracting officials and would not have been available to the public and the critical watchdog groups that keep our government honest. Starting next month, thanks to a provision I proposed and Congress passed, the database will be open to everyone. While it appears that the government agency in charge has a long way to go in ensuring that the database contains all of the data it is supposed to, it should ultimately provide a current, comprehensive inventory of all contractors that have engaged in fraud against the government.
There is one lesson to be learned from all of these examples. Government seems to be working the best for those corporate players savvy enough to hire the top Washington lobbyists and lawyers. Once the American people begin to get a better picture of just where their money is going, however, we will be in a far better position to make the smartest decisions about how to trim our deficit, get out of debt as a nation, and deliver the vital social services our people so desperately need.