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A political who-held-it

September 01, 2006

EVEN IN THE JADED AND treacherous world of Beltway gossip, it's rare to come across a story as rich as the manhunt for the senator who derailed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. It has everything: suspense, hypocrisy, foul play ... and it may yet have a happy ending.

The bill, championed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), would create a Google-like search engine, operated by the government, to give everyday citizens easy access to federal funding information. Activists on the left and the right, from Greenpeace to the Heritage Foundation, loved the idea of increased government transparency. So did an assortment of Republican and Democratic politicians, including bill cosponsors Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the bill unanimously in July. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he'd push for a full Senate vote before the August recess.

In other words, things were looking good for open government. At least until a mystery senator placed a "secret hold" on the bill. Such a hold is a parliamentary tactic that allows a senator to anonymously prevent a bill from coming to a vote on the floor. It didn't take long for bloggers to have some fun with a story about a politician using a backroom maneuver to try to quash a bill about openness. Websites began urging readers to call senators who hadn't yet made convincing denials and push them to clarify or fess up.

The story got juicier on Wednesday, when a staffer confirmed that the perpetrator was Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). (On Thursday, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on Appropriations, also admitted having placed -- and dropped -- a hold on the bill.) One of Stevens' claims to fame is seeking federal funding for the notorious "bridge to nowhere" connecting Gravina Island (population 50) with the Alaska mainland.

His spokesperson told CNN that Stevens placed the hold because he wanted to see "a cost-benefit analysis" of the bill. That's chutzpah: He secretly held up a bill about openness because it failed to disclose its true costs. At least that's what he says -- and if you believe that, well, there's a bridge in Alaska you may be interested in buying.

Now that the mystery is solved, we can only hope that the brouhaha embarrasses Stevens into lifting his hold. Then maybe other senators could actually vote on this bill. It doesn't seem too much to ask for a bill about accountability.

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