Radical Earmark Transparency?


Roll Call is reporting that Inouye and Obey, the Chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees, are implementing what look to be sweeping new earmark disclosure requirements:

The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees on Tuesday jointly vowed to slice the level of earmarks while providing unprecedented disclosure of Member requests.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that 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.

In our experience, the idea of disclosing earmark requests has been rather unpopular with Members and staff, who often fear unintended consequences and uncertainty over such unprecedented disclosure.

Here’s Minority Leader Boehner summarizing some of that concern:

“He has all of the earmarks. He ought to disclose them,” Boehner said. But the minority leader also noted that part of the problem with disclosures is that lawmakers occasionally do not request certain earmarks requested of them, and that can get them in trouble with constituents back home.

“You know, apparently a lot of these members get a lot of requests for all kinds of projects in their districts. And they submit some of them, and apparently some of them they don’t submit. And I think the bigger problem is the ones that they don’t submit on behalf of their constituents,” he said.

This is something we’ve heard a lot, from Members of both parties, and part of why today’s announcement is such a surprise.  It seems to be either a significant reversal on the part of Obey and many other Members, or perhaps just a deepening of the reforms begun in the 110th Congress, or even an attempt to inure the Democrats’ legislative agenda from procedural criticisms.

Whether one views process reform cynically or not, however, the real requirement to disclose all earmark requests should go a long way toward ending the real or perceived quid pro quos of the earmarking process, but only if it’s given real teeth, taken seriously, and not able to be sidestepped by the procedural evasion that is commonplace, especially in the appropriations process.

Given the history of earmark reform, we’re genuinely surprised to see such sweeping reforms proposed by the Appropriations Committee Chairs. I think cautious praise is in order.

For more detail, here’s Pelosi’s page with much more detail on the reforms.