Yesterday, the House and Senate announced new earmark rules, which Sunlight’s Bill Allison addressed here on the Sunlight blog and at Real Time Investigations. (John Wonderlich also looked at the proposal here.) Taxpayers for Common Sense has a similar take as Allison and listed changes that would make these reforms far more effective.
Perhaps the most crucial problem in the new rules is that they do not require a single point of disclosure, instead mandating each individual lawmaker disclose earmark requests on their official web site. In a response to a comment suggesting that Sunlight (or some other group) could create a unified, searchable earmark request database out of the soon to be newly disclosed information, Bill Allison explained how the dispersion of earmark disclosure can be such a huge problem:
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.