Earmark Transparency Leads to More Earmark Competition


"It was not supposed to turn out this way." That is unless you understand the motivations of members of Congress. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that earmark disclosure, instead of reducing the appetite for earmarks, is increasing the competition among district and state-based companies and governments to get federal dollars for their projects. Members of Congress are also starting to realize that transparency is actually beneficial to them. For years members of Congress have sent out press releases announcing money they’ve secured for their district. Now, the information gets released for them. While some voters find earmarking to be an odious, wasteful system, more often than not district voters support earmarked money for their district. As Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) says, "Everybody hates earmarks. Everybody loves earmarks."

The fact that it is a surprise that transparency creates benefits for members of Congress is kind of odd. Transparency, in particular earmark transparency, creates immediate benefits to members who like to tout their ability to gain funding improvements and jobs for their districts. Take the example of freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-KS) and her earmark for a prison museum in her district:

When Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, recently ridiculed a provision on the House floor to spend $100,000 on a prison museum near Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Representative Nancy Boyda of Kansas jumped to promote her district’s heritage.

Leavenworth County, she boasted, had more prisons than any other county in America. Its inmates, she added, have included Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz (before he was sent to Alcatraz).

“The local residents are proud of their heritage, and rightly so,” Ms. Boyda told Mr. Flake during a debate on the House floor. The House voted 317 to 112 to keep her earmark.

Transparency, openness, and greater voter knowledge and access to the governing process in Washington are net benefits to members of Congress. It amazes me that some members of Congress oppose giving citizens greater access to information. Openness and transparency are legitimizing forces in the world of politics. If something is hidden from the public it is not legitimate. However, if that which is hidden is revealed, it suddenly is able to be legitimate (altough it does not automatically become legitimate).

Members of Congress, and the media, need to realize that transparency provides many incentives to their ability to govern and get reelected, which is no doubt paramount in the world of a congressman or woman. That earmark transparency increases the legitimacy of the process and helps members of Congress is no surprise.