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Homeland Security wastes billions

Hillary Wicai Jul 27, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There’s that great line in the movie Casablanca. Where the corrupt police chief says to Humphrey Bogart he’s shocked to find out there’s gambling going on in Rick’s Cafe. Substitute fraud for gambling. And change Rick’s Cafe to the Department of Homeland Security. And you have the latest congressional report on executive branch mismanagement. Thirty-two Homeland Security contracts worth $34 billion. A good part of it apparently wasted.

Congress has oversight of federal spending. But Marketplace’s Hillary Wicai reports lawmakers want some help.

HILLARY WICAI: You can get on Google and find nearly 33 million entries for cheap hair care products in less than a second. But just try and find out who’s getting a chunk of the trillion dollars the feds spend on grants, contracts, loans and insurance each year. Tom Schatz is with Citizens Against Government Waste.

TOM SCHATZ: Nobody has a great system right now in federal agencies to release all of this information.

But that may change. If a bill to create a vast database of federal spending passes the Senate, you may soon be able to easily surf through who gets the money, what they’re spending it on, and if they had to compete for it. Watchdogs, journalists — and you, if you feel like it — could hold government accountable. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, says just having the database should cut down on fraud and abuse.

SEN. TOM COBURN: It’s going to change expectations. If you’re fraudulently going to use a grant, and you know it’s going to be published, and you know everybody in your locale knows you’re getting a grant, and then they’re watching what your doing with it, you’re going to be much less likely to be able to not do something properly.

The bill’s got bipartisan support and it was unanimously passed out of committee today. Gary Bass is with the watchdog group OMB Watch. He says the database is overdue.

GARY BASS: We’re finding more and more contracts are provided without real competition. They are sole-sourced. That’s not a good way of doing business. And this will put a window on how much that is occuring.

The House already passed a similar bill, though that version only focused on grants, not contracts.

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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