Inouye, Obey Promise Earmark Reforms

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Roll Call is reporting that Rep. David Obey and Sen. Daniel Inouye, the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, have agreed to a number of reforms of the earmarking process. According to Roll Call, all earmark requests will be posted online — “starting with the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, when Members make their earmark requests, they will be required to post the requests on their Web sites explaining the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds.”

This is okay as far as it goes, and in improvement (currently earmark requests don’t have to be disclosed at all), but why these requests can’t be centralized in a searchable, sortable, downloadable database rather than spread across 535 member sites is a bit of a mystery.

Roll Call also says tables of approved earmarks will be available before bills are approved by committees (right now you have to wait until the committee approves the bill), and that spending on earmarks would be limited to one percent of discretionary spending–about $10 billion a year.

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  • We’d love to do all of that, of course, but how Congress publishes the data has a direct bearing on how feasible that is.

    Let’s say that members have to disclose the following for every earmark: Project Name, Location, Recipient, Amount Requested, Dept. or Agency that would oversee earmark and Justification. So Sen. Smedley Smith does it like this:

    Sen. Smedley Smith secured from the Defense budget $18 million to purchase state-of-the-art $600 hammers from Springfield-based Boondoggle Inc. as part of the Army’s Operational Management account.

    Not exactly easy to turn into data. Rep. Rube Ryan does it like this:

    $1 million: To the University of Shelbyville Systems Material Management Institute in Shelbyville, to develop crunchless potato chips for MREs, from the Army RDTE budget.

    While you probably wouldn’t end up with 535 different formats, it’s unlikely that you’d end up with earmarks disclosed in a uniform format that could be easily scraped from member Web sites and loaded into a database.

    Add to this the likelihood that these disclosures would be disclosed in different places by different members — Sen. Porkbragger puts them on his home page, Rep. Limelighter posts each disclosure as a separate press release while Rep. Fillibluster likes to hide the link in his 72 screen long list of legislative accomplishments (helpfully labeled, “other actions”), and you begin to see what you’re up against.

    Let’s first make sure that Congress gets the basic disclosure done properly, and then we–along with other groups and individuals–would be happy to find ways to add value to it, allowing for citizen input, cross-referencing with other data, and all kinds of other tools.

  • Jerry O’Connor

    I think the Sunlight foundation (or another group) could create that database. I would like to see the additional feature of allowing citizens to respond to the information, so more than just the politicians’ arguments are heard.