Earmarks: Inherently Bad or Just Broken?

by Sam Rosen-Amy, 3/10/2010

You can always tell when the appropriations season is approaching because, somehow, earmarks, the shadowiest part of the appropriations process, always find a way of sneaking back into the political discourse. True to form, as we wait for Congress' budget resolution, today saw both the Democrats and Republicans announcing their own earmark reform plans. The House Democrats, through Congressman David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, announced that they would be forbidding earmarks to for-profit organizations. At the same time, House Republican Leader John Boehner announced that his caucus was considering an outright ban on earmarks from House Republicans.

Both actions seem like an overreaction. While there was indeed earmark abuse, all for-profit entities were not abusing them, and the House Democrats' actions seem to be punishing those who were following the rules. Also, as a recent New York Times article on the Congressional Black Caucus Foundations suggested, not all non-profits are perfect angels. And banning all earmarks completely won't get rid of corruption or influence-peddling; the most famous recent such scandal, involving Jack Abramoff, wasn't about earmarks.

We at OMB Watch don't take a strong stance either way on earmarks, so we're not going to endorse either party's proposal. What we care about is transparency. As long as everything is transparent and above-board, we're okay with it. But right now, the earmark process could be a lot more transparent.

The problem is that it can be difficult to tell who requests which earmark. In 2009, Congress mandated that Members disclose their earmark requests online. This should have solved the transparency problem, but instead of providing the data in one place, the new rule left it up to each Member to post their earmarks on their individual websites. This meant that there were now 535 different websites listing earmark requests.

To help fix this new problem, Obey's announcement banning earmarks for for-profits also included a promise to provide a "one-stop" link to all Members' earmark requests. While it's not clear what how this promise will be executed (one page with every Member's earmark requests, or one page with links to each Member's website which lists their requests?), we're hopeful it's similar to the principal behind a petition OMB Watch just signed onto. The petition calls on Congress and the Obama administration to make public all earmark information, in one place, in a data-readable format. This information, the "who, what, when, where" of every earmark, could be used by everyone from journalists to advocates to ordinary citizens to actually make the earmark process transparent. It's a great idea, and getting support for the petition is important. Even if Obey releases all earmark information in one place, we still need the Senate data, since Obay's power is only over the House appropriations bills. So go sign the petition, and help bring transparency to the earmark process.

Image by Flickr user johnmuk used under a Creative Commons license.

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