We are not naïve. At Sunlight, when we learned that Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was convening a task force to address the issue of earmarks, we knew the odds of progress were slim. McConnell is an appropriator, a champion of earmarks and an ardent foe of almost every conceivable good government reform. He also has a keen political ear. So by forming a task force on earmark reform, he could arguably demonstrate action without actually moving. As "The Hill" reports here, Senator McConnell not only continues placing obstacles to moderate reform, but he is resisting a push for earmark transparency coming from within his own party.
How did McConnell undertake the issue without putting his caucus at risk of actually having to change its ways on earmarks? He appointed a working group with members on such opposite ends of the earmark spectrum odds were against success. Then he told them to come up with a unanimous recommendation. When they did that, McConnell moved the goal line again, saying he would attempt to work with the Democratic Leader to consider creating a Senate Rule the encompassed the suggestions. Even the most casual political observer wouldn’t be surprised to find that those "negotiations" came to nothing.
You can accuse us of tilting at windmills, but at the beginning of this process Sunlight sent our lobbyist up to Capitol Hill to talk to members of the working group about how to make earmarks more transparent. (We also talked to some key Democrats, including the Majority Leader.) Sometimes when we make reform proposals, we like to push the envelope a bit. But our proposals on earmark reform are so clean and simple, we are at a loss to explain all the resistance. Stripped down to its most basic components, we recommended that whenever a member requests or receives an earmark, he should disclose online who, what, where and how much. Who is the earmark going to benefit? What is the purpose of the earmark? Where is the funding going and how much is being spent? (We have a few other suggestions on earmarks, which we have incorporated into our "Transparency in Government Act.")
We took some satisfaction when we saw that the Republican working group included some of our recommendations in its final proposal. Specifically, the group has recommended that every Senator who gets approval for an earmark from the Appropriations Committee must then disclose that earmark on his or her Web site. In addition, earmarks that find their way into legislation must also be disclosed in a searchable form, 48 hours in advance of floor consideration, on the relevant committee’s Web site. This information would include the identity of each beneficiary and the justification for each earmark.
We were disappointed the Republicans were not willing to apply their recommendations to earmarks requested. (Senators have to put their names on bills they introduce-even if the bills go nowhere. Why shouldn’t they similarly put their names on earmark funding requests? And what better way to make a Senator think twice about whether a project deserves funding than to require her to show her approval of the project up front. ) But, despite our reservations, we believe that small steps are better than foot-dragging.
We hope that with pressure bubbling to the surface, both parties will take seriously the call and the need for more earmark transparency instead of endlessly plodding along pretending, but failing, to take action.