Follow Up with OMB: Earmarks Database Work is Proceeding


Here’s a (now longish) quick follow up on a post I wrote on Monday about a conversation I’d had with Rob Lehman, chief of staff of the Office of Management and Budget, about their efforts to get an online database of individual earmarks up on March 12 (they fell a little short, and were only able to post summary data). Yesterday, I called Lehman back to ask him how things were going, and to see if I could get a few more useful details about OMB’s effort. Here’s a brief summary of what I learned:

— OMB continutes to work on and update the site. I noted in Monday’s post that 7 of 27 agencies had incomplete summary data; as of this writing, there are only four that are incomplete. So progress is being made, and reflected on the site.

— OMB’s intention has been and still is to publish information on the individual earmarks that make up that summary data, as specified in its January 25th memorandum announcing the database. This would include the name and location of the recipient, the cost of the earmark, the purpose, whether it’s once-off funding or a continuing program, and so on.

— OMB never intended to publish, along with each earmark, the congressional sponsor of the earmark. In many cases, agencies don’t know who the sponsor is. If there’s an earmark for Macon County, Ga., to buy buses for public transporation, is it Macon’s Representative, or one of Georgia’s Senators who requested it, or is it, say, a North Carolina Senator trying to get business for a bus manufacturer in her state? (That’s my hypothetical example, by the way.)

Lehman also gave more details about the data problems, which sound considerable and also quite familiar to those of us who’ve worked with federal data. To cite one example, some of the information supplied by agencies will say that the funding for a particular earmark is going to, let’s say, the Department of Transportation at 400 7th Street, SW, Washington D.C., when in fact it’s for a bridge that’s going to be built in Buffalo or a busstop in Wichita, Kansas. Finding out the right information takes time, and that, along with the fact that they’re still missing data from a few agencies–is what’s holding up complete publication, and not any congressional pressure.

Consider that there are 10,580 earmarks to be verified–even if you had a staff of four people working full time on nothing but checking them (and it certainly didn’t sound like that was the case) for the two full weeks between the date OMB received them and the March 12th deadline, then each person would have 55 seconds to check each earmark. Since each earmark consisted of nine fields of informaiton, according to the original memorandum, that’s about 6 seconds to check each field. Probably a lot of the fields can be checked that quickly; the handful (or in the case of government records, bushelful) that can’t throw sand in the gears.

Anyway, I’ll periodically check in to see how they’re doing. I’m as anxious as anyone else to get my hands on the data.