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Levin and Coburn, toe to toe on Earmark Transparency Bill

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A Senate committee’s planned markup of an Earmark Transparency Bill was postponed until July after the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs briefly debated the bill this afternoon.

Though there was not enough committee members present to mark up the bill, that didn’t stop Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., from having a back-and-forth on the issue.

Levin said the bill could conflict with existing rules on Senate earmarks and said that aggregating thousands of earmark requests on a website would be burdensome and unworkable.

Coburn introduced the bill, S.3335, last month which would require a centralized, detailed, downloadable database that would track every earmark that members of Congress request. Requests for earmarks are currently disclosed in a disparate fashion with non-searchable files posted to more than 550 websites.

“What Senator Coburn wants is one single website for all committees to put all the earmarks together in one place. I have no problem with it. But the major problem I have is with the 25 additional things that have to be searchable, some of which cannot be searchable,” Levin said.

“To aggregate thousands of request of the Armed Services Committee [for example]… You can’t aggregate this… This will collapse on its own weight; it is so overwhelmingly complex that you cannot do it the way this bill describes.”

Coburn responded: “You don’t have to aggregate anything, that’s what this website does. The website will do it for you.”

“You can’t,” Levin said.

“Sure you can...” Coburn responded.

At Levin’s request the committee will now seek comments from the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration on the bill, before next month’s markup, a move that Coburn objected. “This bill was assigned to this committee. Rules does not have jurisdiction… This is the bill that President Barack Obama asked for,” Coburn said.

Levin countered that Obama’s direction did not go as far as the current language in the bill.
“[President Obama] did not ask for this bill. He has six words in his State of the Union message, saying he wanted earmarks on a single website to see how the money is being spent. You may want to take the request literally, but if you do, you will have thousands of different requests from each committee,” Levin said. “These are granted earmarks, just requests. This bill goes way beyond that, requests… cannot be aggregated.”

Coburn promised that he will go “toe to toe” with Levin in July.

“You sit here today, and say the American people shouldn’t know about earmarks that are requested… with all deference, this is something the American people won’t stand for us not to do,” Coburn said. “This is something that isn’t going to go away. The sooner we get this taken care of, the sooner the confidence in this body is going to rise.”

Committee Chair, Sen. Joseph Lieberman,  I-Conn., said based on the passion of the two Senators, he awaits next month’s meeting.

“I hope the two of you will meet and reason with each other. I’m looking forward to this markup already,” Lieberman said.

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. Check out our topic page on earmarks here.