WARNING! Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle doesn't want you to know the following information, so please do not read this article.
Basketball star Scottie Pippen played for some great Chicago Bulls teams and won multiple NBA championships. Then, as now, he also pulled down some hefty paychecks. This year, for instance, Pippen will make $18.1 million playing pro hoops for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Believe it or not, Pippen is an accomplished farmer as well. He must be. Why else would the federal government pay him more than $130,000 over a five-year period in "Soil Conservation Reserve" funds? Technically, Uncle Sugar paid Pippen not to grow anything on his Arkansas farms.
Uncle Sugar is paying big bucks to other famous folks, too, including Sam Donaldson of ABC News, CNN founder Ted Turner, and David Rockefeller, former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller Jr. Even former Washington Post Managing Editor Ben Bradlee received federal money under the program a couple of years ago.
None of these facts would be known were it not for the labors of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based non-profit organization that recently posted a comprehensive database of Agriculture Department spending on its Web site. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to make such data public.
But that could change if Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., gets his way. He tried valiantly before the Christmas break to gain passage of a farm bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee that included an obscure measure originally authored by the panel's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Daschle failed, but the measure -- which would exempt huge amounts of information from disclosure under the FOIA -- is far from dead. Small wonder: It would allow government bureaucrats to keep such potentially inconvenient facts as Pippen's tax-paid bounty out of public view.
According to an EWG analysis of the committee's farm bill, the measure "would preclude the public from examining all conservation plans, plans that contain information such as practices to be adopted by the farmer or landowner, as well as a timetable for implementing and the amount of federal cost-share dollars to implement the plan."
Among the Agriculture Department operations that would be "off limits" to public examination: Emergency Watershed Protection, Farmland Protection Program, Flood Risk Reduction Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Grazing Lands Conservation and the Forestry Incentives Program. As much as $4 billion annually in federal agriculture spending would disappear from public view.
Things such as the Scottie Pippen farm payments would become, literally, state secrets. Washington politicians could rest easy, knowing there would be no more embarrassing newspaper articles about the millions in taxpayer dollars being handed out to sports figures, media celebrities and corporate fat cats.
If the measure ever does become law, how long before somebody else in Congress decides other federal programs should be exempt from public examination? If farm conservation programs should be exempt, why not put all of the government's welfare programs or all of the public health programs behind closed doors? Or any other government program that somebody in Congress or the White House fears might harbor scandalous or wasteful spending?
It requires breath-taking arrogance to propose such an exemption. The Daschle-Harkin proposal is nothing less than a slap in the face of the public's right to know what our government is doing with billions of taxpayer dollars -- or who benefits from federal programs.
Instead of drawing a curtain over parts of our government, Congress should be shining light on more of the federal behemoth. How can we hope to have confidence in what our elected officials are doing unless the public's business is done in public?
Mark Tapscottis director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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