Loopholes already being sought for earmark ban

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Some House Republicans are already looking for a way around the ban on earmarks imposed on the next Congress. These members are rapidly trying to come up with a new definition for earmarks, or directed spending, to skirt the ban.

Politico reports, “[S]ome Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects. While transportation earmarks are probably the most notorious — think “Bridge to Nowhere” — there is talk about tweaking the very definition of “earmark.”

This was entirely predictable. There are so many outlets for member-directed spending in spending legislation that there was bound to be an attempt to evade the earmark ban. The politics got out ahead on this issue and it looks like it will circle back around and wind up biting the new majority in the ass.

Even more worrisome than Congress’ sudden confusion over how to apportion spending without earmarks is the increased lack of transparency that an earmark ban will bring. Current earmark transparency rules are already pretty loose and difficult to track as there is no single centralized database for earmarks and earmark requests.

A ban, which members are trying to turn into a sieve, does nothing to increase spending transparency. As Congress seeks to find new ways to define earmarks they will likely find new ways for these “nearmarks” to be hidden away form the public’s view.

In the attempt to redefine earmarks to avoid the ban we are being treated to Chauncey Gardiner-esque statements like this one from Rep. Phil Roe, “It’s like what beauty is … Everyone knows what a bridge to nowhere is, or an airport that lands no airplanes, or a statue to you — everyone knows that’s bad. It’s easy to say what an earmark isn’t, rather than what an earmark is.”

A shorter version of this would say, “earmarks are bad, except when I say they’re not bad, which is when they’re beautiful.”

The public doesn’t need Forrest Gump philosophy about government spending. We need clarity and transparency, not loopholes and dumb metaphors.

If Congress is at all serious about reforming earmarks they need to do something about the transparency of earmarks. This is especially true if they aren’t as serious as they say they are about a ban. As my colleague John Wonderlich wrote:

Earmark reform has developed through incremental commitments from political leadership separately in each chamber. If each of these steps has been difficult to evaluate, prone to loopholes, and often contentious, then it makes sense to adopt the one measure that makes earmarks easier to evaluate, will help identify loopholes, and has a broad consensus supporting it: the single searchable database of earmark information laid out in the Earmark Transparency Act.

If the House is already filled with talk of how to skirt the earmark ban it becomes even more important to pass the Earmark Transparency Act. The public doesn’t need a muddled process of loopholes and special exemptions with no public accountability. We need a centralized, transparent process. We need the Earmark Transparency Act.

Picture attributed to Flickr user michaelnewport under CC license.

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  • FY 2011 earmark requests can be viewed here:

    http://www.washingtonwatch.com/bills/earmarks/

    And we do have the data available in bulk for the asking. Contact us for details.

    Your point is correct, of course. Congress is not providing earmark transparency yet, and they should.