Sunlight memo to Congress: Here’s how to do earmark disclosure

February 5, 2010 05:36

By: Mark Tapscott
Editorial Page Editor Washington Examiner
02/04/10 5:14 PM EST

President Obama’s remarks during last State of the Union address included an admonition to Congress to change the way it discloses earmarks, by putting all of the information about every earmark on one web site that is easily accessible to the public.

That was good advice and there is no practical or philosophical reason why Congress should delay doing that as soon as possible. But Congress being Congress, additional “encouragement” will almost certainly be required.

To that end, the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington non-profit devoted to increasing transparency and accountability in government, is circulating a useful How-to that should be required reading for every Member of Congress:

“How Congress Should Fulfill President Obama’s Call for Real Earmark Disclosure

“In his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama noted that while Congress had taken steps to make earmarks more transparent, more needed to be done. He called for the creation of a single robust Web site for disclosing complete information on these projects that get funded at the request of a single lawmaker.

“Currently, information on earmarks is scattered over more than 559 Web sites, including two dozen Web sites maintained by the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees and the official site of each member of Congress. While it is possible for seasoned earmark researchers to follow the money, constituents are still pretty much left in the dark. By calling for a single point of disclosure, Obama would change that, allowing users to follow their lawmakers’ spending preferences from the time a request is made to the time it is funded.

“Following an earmark requires inordinate persistence and a great deal of specialized knowledge about how Congress works—it is not something that the average citizen is able to do. And the dispersed disclosure is absolutely unnecessary. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees already have internal databases for tracking earmarks. Lawmakers submit earmark requests via a Web-based interface containing complete information on constituents should be able to see (beneficiary name, address, amount requested, project description, project justification and so on).

“There is no reason that the public should not have as complete information on earmarks as appropriators, especially considering that public disclosure of earmarks is the principal means Congress enacted to prevent wasteful spending (the $300 million Alaskan bridges to nowhere) and corruption (Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, who traded defense earmarks for bribes).

“That is why the president’s call for a single, unified earmarks database that would track them from request to funding is so important. Such a resource would finally give constituents all the information they need to learn what their elected representatives are funding. They can then determine for themselves whether lawmakers are using earmarks to meet pressing needs or reward political supporters.

“Congress should be encouraged to act fast and publish online the earmark database the president requested before the request deadline this spring.”

For more from and about Sunlight, go here. See especially the Party Time posts, and the “Our Tools and Resources” page. Many of the folks at Sunlight have roots on the liberal side of the spectrum, but they do a tremendous amount of important and useful work on many transparency and accountability issues that conservatives and moderates can and should cheer.

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