Disclosure is Step One to Earmark Accountability


Friday’s edition of The New York Times ran a piece by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) where he brags on passing earmark transparency and makes the case that disclosure is reform. We agree. If disclosure works as it should kudos are in order for all Members of Congress of both parties that supported this key reform.

Emanuel’s take on earmarks is close to my own. Earmarks themselves are not necessarily bad way to allocate federal money, but lack of transparency and accountability about them has been a huge problem. "There was no opportunity to review either their sponsorship or their merit before their passage," Emanuel wrote.

Earmarks are a way of getting the work of government accomplished, as I see it — funding health care centers, research at universities, building and road projects, and yes, even building new post offices are not undeserving government activities. But weighing one project against another and making tradeoffs, determining whether a recipient is getting an earmark simply because it’s been a big political contributor, and stopping the wasteful earmarks has been impossible without transparency.

So what does the bill actually say about disclosure? It requires that the name of the representative or senator who files any earmarks is made public, as well as requires that the proposed earmark is available on a publicly accessible congressional website in a searchable format at least 48 hours before any vote. If this is followed to the letter, it will be the first time that that lawmakers can examine each others’ earmark requests and question the validity of them. As importantly it will be the first time that the press and everyday citizens can see the sponsors of congressional earmarks on the web and raise questions before the legislation is passed. We think that when the sun shines on the process of earmarking federal funds that the projects that do not really serve a public purpose will quickly fall by the wayside.

If anyone wants to check to see if earmark recipients are big campaign contributors they can do that by digging into the contribution databases here. Or if they want to see who is lobbying for a particular corporation who is slated for federal dollars they can look here. Or imagine you wanted to see whether any of those who are getting federal dollars have ever been cited for a misconduct violation. Wonder how much other money the federal government has given that company? Many of the databases that Sunlight has helped to fund will enable lawmakers, citizens, and journalists alike to connect the dots. These are just some of the important tools that can help you evaluate the validity of the earmarks.

Transparency is the key. Earmarks ought to be disclosed as they were enacted, on the Internet, in downloadable and searchable databases. They should be publish with code that allows them to be "mashed" with other information, like lists of political contributors, Google Maps, etc. Even better, lawmakers should put them on their websites and invite citizen comment and discussion about them.