News Without Transparency: House Passes Bridge BIll After an Earmark Debate
Matt Rumsey and Melanie Buck wrote this post.
Earlier this spring, the New York Times reported that the House approved bipartisan legislation allowing construction of a new bridge crossing Minnesota and Wisconsin. At the price of $700 million the bridge will connect two towns, each with 4,000 residents.
Much of the information included in the article can be accessed via Congress’ online legislative information system, THOMAS. THOMAS was launched as part of Newt Gingrich’s efforts to modernize House technology following the 1994 elections and continues to provide an outlet for increasing public access to government information. Using THOMAS you can access the text of the legislation as well as information on votes, sponsors, and related bills.
The article states that “the vote was 339 to 80, with 16 Republicans and 64 Democrats voting against the measure.” Roll call votes are recorded by the Clerk of the House and can be accessed through either the Clerk’s website or in a centralized THOMAS location. House rules mandate that most votes are recorded electronic device. Vote information is then published in the Congressional record and posted online.
Critics of the bill claimed that the legislation effectively served as an earmark, approving a specific project in its sponsors’ congressional district and including $8 million that had previously been earmarked for the project. Since Congress decided to ban earmarks in late fall 2010, it has frequently been reported that similar projects are still being funded through various loopholes. Prior to the earmark ban, both the House and Senate required that earmark requests be reported to the Office of Management and Budget. It is still possible to search for earmarks between FY 2005 and FY 2010 using the OMB database.
The new bridge is intended to replace The Stillwater Lift Bridge, originally built in 1931. The article states that while the bridge was initially intended for light traffic, it now carries 16,000 cars per day. This information can be confirmed by accessing a public website maintained by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.