Abstinence Only Earmark Reform


We’ve heard this story before.

Today’s Washington Post explains that Senators McCaskill and Toomey are planning to propose a new “ban” on earmarks.  This is the next in a series redundant attempts to ban earmarks altogether, ranging from leadership policies to veto threats.

Unfortunately, none of these so-called bans has worked, as the process of securing funds for Members’ districts has moved underground, and become more difficult to track. Here are a dozen stories about this phenomenon.

It’s folly to attempt to tie Congress’s hands on earmarks.  Spending money is one of Congress’s fundamental responsibilities, and Members will always look to the interests of their districts first. Requiring abstinence for earmarks is bound to fail.

Transparency, on the other hand, has a chance of succeeding.  The Earmark Transparency Act, that passed out of committee in the last Congress, would create a single, searchable database for all earmarks and earmark requests in Congress.  Unfortunately, the bill’s prognosis has dimmed as the rhetoric of fake earmark bans has become more popular.

The biggest weakness with the Earmark Transparency Act was that Members often act unilaterally, strong-arming agencies into spending money on their pet projects. That problem can be fixed with an existing Executive Order, EO 13457, that requires agencies to ignore verbal spending requests from Members of Congress, and to post all written requests online.  Unfortunately, that EO hasn’t been enforced, as FOIA’d documents from all these stories show. The Executive Order requires those requests to be placed online, which has not happened. The only bright spot in that story is that the administration is apparently considering updating and enforcing that executive order, as a draft EO was recently circulated on the hill.

If Congress is serious about accountability for earmarks, they’ll start creating reliable transparency requirements, like the Earmark Transparency Act, or Executive Order 13457.  Until then, we should recognize earmark ban rhetoric as empty and unreliable.