It Ain’t Easy Tracking Earmarks


In what are otherwise reasonable commentaries on earmarks, a certain meme has emerged in the editorial pages across the land that I’d like to squash: it’s easy to track earmarks. It’s not.

It took hundreds of hours to input the 9,499 earmarks from this past year into the database maintained by Taxpayers for Common Sense, according to Steve Ellis, the organization’s vice president. And that database doesn’t have all of the information that you would need to put earmark information into context, such as identifying all the beneficiaries, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Doing so would take much more time and money.

Jim Harper, who crowd-sourced a database for that tracked 37,000 earmark requests this past year, told me “It sure ain’t easy to track earmarks.” If it takes 90 seconds for a volunteer to enter an earmark into the database, that’s 38 days of non-stop data entry.

The truth is, earmark information is spread throughout more than 500 congressional websites in difficult-to-use formats. This is an improvement over having to scour all legislation to find earmarks in a budgetary game of cat-and-mouse, but there’s much more to be done. That’s why the Sunlight Foundation supports the Earmark Transparency Act (HR 5258 and S 3335), which would require Congress to make all earmark information available in one central location with all of the data that we need to figure out what’s going on. (The House and Senate Appropriations Committees already track all earmarks, but that info isn’t publicly available.)

If you’re interested in learning more about earmarks, watch this video from Monday with Steve, Jim, and me on the future on earmark transparency, or check out this timeline of earmark reforms and list of bills introduced this past Congress to reform the earmarking process.

Whether you think Congress should ban or embrace earmarks, we shouldn’t pretend it’s easy to track the money.