What ever happened to earmark transparency?


Late last year, the Obama administration floated a draft Executive memo that would have brought transparency to the currently opaque earmark process. The document appeared to build upon Executive Order 13457, issued by President George W. Bush, that would have put written earmark requests online. Unfortunately, the Obama administration still hasn’t enforced EO 13457 or taken further action on their own memo.

With Congress slowly working its way through appropriations and other spending bills, and the future of the earmark ban unclear, now is the time to act on, not forget about, earmark transparency.

Earmarks have been under constant attack for the better part of the past decade.  But, despite a Congressional ban, they have not been eradicated entirely. Instead, earmarks have retreated to the shadows, becoming harder to track than ever before.

Before the ban earmarks in legislation had some small level of transparency baked into their creation process. After a series of reforms they appeared in appropriations packages or committee reports and could often be tracked, albeit with great difficulty.

Under the current “ban”, it is more difficult than ever to track earmarks. It has been widely reported that savvy lawmakers have figured out how to steer funding towards their favored projects, appealing directly to executive agencies. We have been keeping track of such reports.

Executive Order 13457, if enforced, would have instructed agencies to ignore earmark requests that were not put in writing. When requests were issued in writing agencies would have to put relevant documents online within 30 days of receipt. The Obama memo aimed to enforce and build on EO 13457, including stronger reporting requirements and searchable online formats.

The Sunlight Foundation has been calling for enforcement of the Bush Executive order since March, 2011, came out in favor of the Obama memo when it was circulated last November, and has been advocating for earmark transparency for even longer.

Earmarks haven’t gone away, they’ve just disappeared from view. The Obama administration should make the memo a reality and ensure that members of Congress have to stand up for their pet priorities all the time, not just when it’s politically expedient for them. If Congress moves to lift their self-imposed earmark ban they should also pass the Earmark Transparency Act, which would create a single searchable, sortable database of earmark requests.