Bringing Accountability to Washington

Published on Monday, 12 August 2013 21:24
Written by thenebraskasigna

By Senator Deb Fischer

Nebraskans are no strangers to the stories of wasteful government spending. The most egregious examples are well documented by my colleague, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), in his annual “Wastebook” and other reports. They range in activities that are anywhere from strange, to simply absurd – and they are all sad, but true.

For example: despite significant fiscal pressures, the Department of Defense spent $5.2 million dollars on a study comparing social-making decisions of fish to democracy. The mission of the study, the Department of Defense claimed, was to see what lessons can be learned about how individuals achieve a democratic consensus from the social patterns of fish.

The 2012 “Wastebook” also disclosed that the federal government overpays at least $1 billion annually for products and services by failing to pursue easy opportunities for cost-savings through group orders. While this may seem like basic management “1-0-1” to some, I’ve found that this commonsense is lost on too many Washington bureaucrats.

At a time when our country faces serious fiscal challenges and a soaring $17 trillion national debt, these fiscal blunders are more than foolish – they are dangerously irresponsible. These examples of government waste underscore the critical importance of proper congressional oversight of federal agencies and their funding.

I’m working hard to rein in our government’s bad spending habits. That starts by increasing transparency and accountability. I believe that hardworking taxpayers have a right to know just how their money is being spent – this includes the costs associated with government lawsuits.The so-called “Judgment Fund” is an unlimited sum of money administered by the Treasury Department used to pay certain court judgments and settlements against the federal government. Throughout the past seven years, Treasury has spent nearly $11 billion in Judgment Fund awards. Notably, the fund is not subject to the annual appropriations process and unfortunately, the Treasury Department has no reporting requirements.

The result? Eleven billion in taxpayer money doled out in just the past decade, with almost zero oversight or scrutiny.

Before the Judgment Fund was established, claims against the government were assigned to a congressional committee that would appropriate funds in order to pay liability, attorneys’ fees, and costs associated with the claim. Once the Judgment Fund was established in 1956, however, congressional committees stopped appropriating funds. Now, if a government agency does not use its own annual budget to cover the costs, Treasury simply dips into its unlimited supply of taxpayer cash to make up the difference.

Because the Treasury Department has no binding reporting requirements, few public details exist about where the funds are going, or why the government is liable in the first place. The administration is free to choose where and when to release information about these lawsuits, leaving taxpayers in the dark on these seemingly endless expenditures.

To tackle this problem, I have introduced the Judgment Fund Transparency Act, a bill with a straightforward goal: increasing transparency and oversight of the taxpayers’ money. I’m pleased to have Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) as cosponsors.

Our legislation would require the Treasury Department to post on a publicly accessible website the claimant, counsel, agency, fact summary, and payment amount for each claim from the Judgment Fund, unless a law or court order otherwise prohibits the disclosure of such information. Importantly, it would also ensure Members of Congress and the public have the ability to see exactly how tax dollars are being spent.

I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will support this commonsense legislation. While there are plenty of issues that divide us, this reasonable proposal is something we can all support, Republicans and Democrats alike. I believe our legislation is one simple, but important step we can take to bring greater accountability to Washington. Only then can we begin to prevent the waste, fraud, and abuse that has created a growing trust gap between the American people and our government.