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Earmark Transparency Act will finally bring transparency to earmarks

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The Earmark Transparency Act of 2010, a bipartisan bill introduced today by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., John McCain, R-Ariz., Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.,  vastly improves the way in which information about earmarks is disclosed. The bill requires a centralized, detailed, downloadable database that would track every earmark requested.

While Congress has greatly improved the amount of information available about earmarks, it has not provided that information in user friendly formats. A single point of access to machine readable, standardized earmark data has been needed since the House and Senate Appropriations Committees announced that they would require members to post their earmark requests online in 2009. It's been needed since the House and Senate started requiring, in 2007, that bills with earmarks list them separately, with the name of the sponsoring member identified.

In 2007, Laura Peterson of Taxpayers for Common Sense described the very first table of earmarks, released by the House Armed Services Committee as an image-file PDF, as having "visual quality that would strain the eyes of Superman, much less daylight-deprived budget watchdogs." Sunlight offered this prediction of what disclosure would be like without a centralized, standardized format--one that proved all too prescient when we tried to put links to all House requests in one database, or when our friends at Washington Watch tried to digitize all fiscal year 2010 earmark requests. (Full disclosure: Sunlight funded Washington Watch's crowd-sourcing tool for collecting the data.)

Currently, there are four major types of earmark disclosure (requests, committee reports, certification letters, conference reports) scattered over more than 550 websites. Collating all that information for a single earmark is a daunting task (a problem President Barack Obama addressed in no less an occasion than his first State of the Union address).

Coburn's bill solves all these problems. Earmark requests, certification letters (in which members avow that neither they nor their spouses have a financial interest in the recipient of the earmark), funding amounts and more would all be disclosed in a single format, in two places (the websites of the House Clerk and the Secretary of the Senate) instead of 550-some places.

What's more, the Earmark Transparency Act will  a tremendous amount of information about earmarks that, to date, we've only been able to infer. For example, some projects receive earmarks year after year--members would have to disclose whether a request is a one-off project or an ongoing project supported solely by congressionally directed spending requests. Members will also have to identify whether recipients are for-profit, non-profit or governmental bodies. They'll have to indicate how long a project is likely to run, why it's a reasonable use of taxpayer funds, and whether other funds (for example, state or local tax dollars, or private funds) will also be used to complete the project.

Roll Call reported on the Earmark Transparency Act here.

Full disclosure: Sunlight provided input on the bill, largely based on the Reporting Group's real world experience of trying to use earmark disclosures in our work.