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Montana Dem Calls On Senate Colleagues To Join Transparency Effort

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Mark Tapscott Executive Editor, Chief of Investigative Group
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Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is making himself one of the U.S. Senate’s chief advocates for increased transparency and accountability in government by launching a bipartisan legislative caucus for like-minded colleagues and introducing a bill requiring thousands of federal contracts that are now hidden to be made public.

“The best government is a transparent one,” the Montana Democrat said in a Dear Colleague letter circulating among members of the Senate. “This is not a partisan issue as evidenced by the good work being done by Republicans, Democrats and Independents in Congress. But we can and must do more to bring greater transparency and accountability to all branches of the government. It is my hope that this caucus can help facilitate this important work.”

Tester described the purpose of the caucus as providing “a platform to discuss, craft and support measures to improve the oversight and transparency of all branches of government.”

Caucuses are informal groups of senators who join to advance a legislative measure, educate colleagues on issues and inform the public. Senate caucuses receive no public funding, unlike House caucuses, which are given official recognition and budgets.

Tester, who was the first senator to put his official daily schedule online, recently introduced a trio of bills, which if enacted into law would make available either on the internet or by request a huge number of documents that are currently inaccessible to the public.

Tester announced the caucus’ formation earlier in March during Sunshine Week, a commemoration hosted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to encourage greater public awareness of the importance of transparency and accountability in government.

The event also celebrates the March 17 birth date of President James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans’ freedom of religion, press, assembly and petition.

Tester introduced legislation March 16 requiring online posting of all government contracts valued at more than $150,000. Disclosure would come, he said, via through an online database “organized in a searchable format and easily available to the public, reporters, and watchdogs.”

Under current law, federal agencies typically refuse to disclose such contracts, citing the “commercial privilege” exception of the Freedom of Information Act. The federal government spends over $400 billion on government contracts each year.

“Making these documents publicly available will hold government contractors accountable to the American public,” Tester said. “This legislation will increase government transparency and shine more light on how and where the government is spending taxpayer dollars.”

Tester also reintroduced during Sunshine Week his proposed Public Information Online Act that would require all executive branch documents to be posted online and available to the public. The bill also establishes what Tester described as “an independent, bipartisan watchdog to issue guidelines for making public information accessible online.”

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