Our Earmarks Experiment


Sunlight’s largest experiment in the world of citizen journalism unfurled yesterday with a coalitional effort asking citizens to help us explore the world of earmarks in the Labor/HHS bill. While we haven’t yet been overwhelmed by the response, we are already pleased by what we’ve seen. Simply put: people are digging up interesting stuff. Bill Allison will keep up with what’s coming into various websites and report to you.

Part of why this effort can be declared a success is that I think we are already getting people to think differently about the earmark process, including folks on the progressive end of the spectrum. I had an interesting reaction from a long-time colleague yesterday when he looked at the list of earmarks. He wrote:

The most surprising discovery here is that almost all of these earmarks, just from glancing at about 300 of them, seem really legitimate and useful – the kind of stuff you want government to be funding. Seems like the defense appropriations bills should be given the spotlight – that’s where the real waste occurs.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that this project is a breakthrough in the history of government watch dogging. Seriously. From now on legislation and spending will receive more scrutiny than it ever has in the past. That’s bound to lead to more responsible spending, and it’s surely going to kneecap K Street in the process.

So the net benefit — on all fronts — is huge. And if all who report on this type of stuff can use it to nab some bad actors, even better.

And I wrote back, essentially, saying that defining earmark "abuse" is like defining a terrorist (e.g. one woman’s definition of a terrorist is another woman’s definition of a "freedom fighter") and that Sunlight’s focus is on the lack of transparency and accountability by lawmakers in the earmark process. If we can get transparency – and even more so if citizens demand it by calling up with legislators and asking them what they are responsible for — then citizens can decide for themselves whether an earmark is legit or not.

Some commenters, like my friend above, have questioned why we started with a Labor/HHS bill and not a defense approps bill. The answer is quite simple — we started with the opportunity that presented itself, believing strongly that the principle of openness and accountability in earmarks is universal. That said, we recognize that this isn’t yet a truly across-the-political-spectrum coalition and we want to make sure that it grows into that. No doubt, if someone hands us the earmark list in the next defense bill, that may attract instant interest and energy from watchdog groups on the left, which would be great. We would hope that folks on the right side of the spectrum would be just as interested in digging into those earmarks too! A larger, and truly politically diverse coalition banding together, encouraging citizens to demand accountability to expose the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on in Congress — until we can pressure Congress to do be more open on their own — could truly be revolutionary.