January 2, 2009— -- Call them the three S's: Spending, Secrets and Spying. Those are the major issues good government groups say they will be focused on in 2009, according to an informal poll by ABCNews.com.
In the first few months of the year, the federal government will likely spend more money faster than in any other point in history, notes Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a spending watchdog. Congress and President Barack Obama are expected to commit roughly $1.5 trillion through Treasury bailout funds, a massive new stimulus package, and congressional appropriations.
"It is a target-rich environment," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which scrutinizes federal spending. "It's almost a matter of where you start first."
"History has shown us there are opportunities here for abuse and corruption," said Mary Boyle of Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based membership group that holds politicians "accountable to the public interest," according to its Web site. "We need to make sure the money is [spent in] an open and accountable process."
On the campaign trail campaign trail, President-elect Obama vowed to run "the most transparent administration in American history." That would be a refreshing change say good-government groups, who were vexed by eight years of increasing secrecy by the Bush administration.
They're hoping for less classification of government documents, more public information available online, and better protection for whistleblowers.
Steve Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, says he's looking forward to "a transformation" of the government's approach to information, where "increased disclosure becomes the norm."
The Project on Government Oversight's Danielle Brian concurred. Obama "has made enormous promises on openness. . . . I think you're going to see real change," she said.
The enormous spending expected next year makes more openness and protection for whistleblowers a necessity, said Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project. "It's a necessity for President Obama to honor the commitments of Candidate Obama to enact whistleblower protection rights" for both public and private workers, he said.
Those employees need protection from retaliation, because they "serve as watchdogs on the beat, as literally billions of taxpayers' money is spent" without sufficient oversight, Devine said. Obama supported those protections as a senator, noted Brian.
Government access to citizens' phone calls, records and internet traffic are a serious concern to several watchdogs, including civil liberties groups. The American Civil Liberties Union wants the Obama administration to issue an executive order barring the government from listening to the conversations or reading the e-mails of U.S. residents and citizens.
Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies said she's hoping 2009 will bring answers on what the NSA warrantless wiretapping program has already done. A new law last year required a report to be produced by next summer on the program. "I'm hoping that will indicate how many Americans' records were obtained," said Graves, "and the number of people wiretapped."
"Nearly the entire whistleblower community was nervous about being targeted by domestic surveillance during the last administration," said Devine of the Government Accountability Project. He said his group "will be pressing hard" to make sure Obama holds to his earlier views on restricting the government's domestic spying operations.