Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, stopped the Senate dead in its tracks yesterday and posed a question that made many of his colleagues squirm in their seats: "What is it we don't want the American people to see?"
The Oklahoma Republican was referring to a Senate-House conference committee's decision to drop from the $33.5 billion energy and water appropriations bill, a Coburn-backed provision approved unanimously by the Senate in July. The dropped provision represented what AP reporter Andrew Taylor perjoratively described as one of Coburn's "pet ideas."
Usually, a senator's "pet idea" involves some kind of special favor for a campaign contributor, or an earmark to send more pork barrel spending to the folks back home.
In fact, Coburn's point is that the people who pay for government with their taxes have a right to see what their government is doing with their money. It's a principle that, unfortunately, many in government don't share, including quite a few of Coburn's colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate.
And Coburn isn't exactly a Johnny-come-lately to the concept of transparency in government spending. Recall that he was the main force behind passage of the Federal Financial Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 - aka "Coburn-Obama" - that mandated creation of the USASpending.gov. web site to put most federal outlays in a Google-like database within a few mouse clicks for every citizen on the Internet.
The Coburn provision dumped by the conference committee was a requirement that reports federal agencies are required to send to the congressional appropriations committees should also now be made available to the public. Such reports often include significant information that isn't otherwise made available to the media or the public about where and how tax dollars are being spent.
When Coburn discovered the provision had been cut out of the conference report, he exercised his privilege under Senate rules of blocking all action on anything for 30 hours. In other words, he did the Mr. Smith Goes To Washington thing - he filibustered. And that's when he posed that question - "What is it that we don't want the American people to see?"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, certainly wasn't prepared to answer Coburn's query. Reid was his usual blustering, obfuscating self, declaring that "it's wasted time. We spend hours, days on this floor doing nothing." Reid said the Senate should instead do something productive, like spending more tax dollars without answering Coburn's question.
Neither was Rep. Ed Pastor, D-AZ, the chief House Democrat on the conference committee that dropped the Coburn provision. He was seized by a sudden bout of amnesia when asked why, exactly, was that decision made.
Still, AP's Taylor managed to give us one possible explanation for why our legislators are so hesitant to make such spending reports public: "But a Democratic aide said later that there is concern that making every report public automatically might cause agencies to be less candid in their dealing with the Appropriations Committee. The aide required anonymity to speak candidly."
Did you catch that? Making bureaucrats put their words into the light of day "might" make them be "less candid" to Congress. Does that mean they might not quite tell us the whole truth? Is that a threat?
No, it's just another profile in courage from the nation's capital.