When Congress approved the $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act on October to bail out Wall Street, it marked a major expansion of the government's role in the markets. Unfortunately, as taxpayers have already discovered, just who got what out of the bailout is still unknown, even to members of Congress.
The Pew Charitable Trusts hopes to change all that, announcing Dec. 15 it plans to develop a publicly accessible database called Subsidyscope to focus public and policymaker attention on the size and scope of all federal subsidies. Pew said it would release regular reports, aggregating and analyzing subsidies to various industry sectors.
Pew has engaged the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group, to construct the technical infrastructure, compiling data and building Subsidyscope's database. Among Sunlight's other projects are PublicMarkup.org, which seeks to open legislation to online and public review; Earmark Watch, an open review of Washington spending; and OpenCongress, a government transparency effort with news and blogging about Capitol Hill.
"This project represents an exciting opportunity to shine a light on various ways that increasingly scarce federal resources are being spent," Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said in a statement. "While we don't know precisely what the project will find, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, 'Sunlight is the best disinfectant.'"
John E. Morton, managing director of Pew's Economic Policy Department, said Washington subsidies increasingly flow through the tax code and are not subject to the same level of public oversight as other federal expenditures.
"Too often policymakers speak as if subsidies are limited to direct expenditures on assorted social programs," Morton said. "In our fiscally constrained environment-and with government interventions shifting new burdens onto American taxpayers-there is more need than ever for a comprehensive and transparent fact base to inform future discussions about subsidies."
Noting that federal subsidies go well beyond direct payments from the federal government to private businesses, Douglas Hamilton, deputy director of Pew's Economic Policy Department, added, "They also include tax breaks for individuals and corporations, loan guarantees, stock purchases and other financial interventions. And they're massive."