Sunlight Labs weighs in on Earmark bill


In yesterday’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs meeting, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said that portions of the bill were far too complex and were not able to be aggregated.

Not so, said Sunlight Foundation’s Web Developer Kaitlin Lee.

“If they’re already taking earmark request digitally, then have a database engineer on staff export the data tables,” Lee said.

“Senator Levin might think it’s a huge data curation process or a manual process. But if it’s already electronic, then a database engineer can write a programming script to do it. It’s a trivial exercise.”

The proposed Earmark Transparency Bill calls for a centralized, detailed, downloadable database that would track every earmark that members of Congress request. Currently, requests are only publicly disclosed in a disparate fashion with non-searchable files posted to more than 550 websites.

While it’s never been stated by a member of Congress that an internal earmark request tracking system exists, it’s commonly believed that one does, said Steve Ellis, spokesperson for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“How can the committee manage thousands upon thousands of requests without some sort of system? It can’t just be that they have a bunch of file folders,” Ellis said. “The committees would have to have some way that they could track these request rather than a pile of letters. And at some point they make it into tables in the committee reports.”

Lee adds that linking the internal tracking system to an earmarks request database, as the bill calls for, could allow the public to view incoming requests and see which ones have been approved or rejected by congress – in real time.

“If they’re running the internal tracking system, they can have that internal database link to the proposed new earmark website,” Lee said. You don’t have to change the existing database, but just have the proposed earmarks web page make a ‘read only’ request of the existing tracking system.”

Real time viewing of earmarks would allow for greater context, Lee said.

“Say they approved five earmarks for something but there were 200 requests, then that gives you a better perspective on what’s actually going through there and how many requests they’re dealing with,” Lee said.

(Full disclosure: Sunlight provided input on the bill, largely based on the Reporting Group’s real world experience of trying to use earmark disclosures in our work. Sunlight has also funded Taxpayers for Common Sense.)