Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and a bipartisan group of Senators will propose legislation Tuesday to create a new, centralized earmark database to provide the public with more consistent and accessible information on earmark requests.
The bill — the Earmark Transparency Act — would require the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate to create a searchable, publicly available website that would include all "congressionally directed spending items" including appropriations earmarks, limited tax benefits and specific project authorizations. The bill would also establish uniform reporting requirements for each item, including the name of the beneficiary, the amount requested and the amount approved in a final bill, and whether the request was funded in prior years.
Both the House and Senate Appropriations committees require Members to post on their websites the earmark requests they have submitted, and both committees have posted links to the Member request pages.
But information listed by the Members varies widely. Some House Members list all the earmarks that constituents sought, rather than the earmark requests that the Members submitted. In the Senate, some Members provide detailed information about each earmark, while others post only summaries. Some Members post each earmark separately; others have posted a copy of a document listing all of the earmarks the Member supports. And the Senate Appropriations Committee only requires Members to keep the requests posted until 30 days after the appropriations bill passes.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama called on Congress "to continue down the path of earmark reform ... publish all earmark requests on a single website before there's a vote, so that the American people can see how their money is being spent."
Coburn said in a statement that the bill is a response to Obama's call.
"While Congress has taken some steps to make the earmark process more transparent, some members and special interest groups still prefer to keep the process a secret," Coburn said. "The American people should not have to obtain search warrants to understand how Congress is spending their money."
The bill is also being sponsored by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Feingold said in a statement: "Far too often, taxpayer dollars are wasted on unnecessary projects for groups or individuals simply because they have close ties to lawmakers. Making it easier for the American people to see who is behind these earmarks and how exactly their tax dollars are being spent will help curb wasteful spending, while exposing potential corruption."
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) proposed a similar bill in the House last summer with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, but the legislation has not moved.
Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation — which provided input on Coburn's bill — said, "It's good to have a uniform standard for disclosure so that everyone is reporting the same information in the same way." Allison said a single, sortable database would make it easy for the public to see the total value of earmarks requested by an individual Member or the total value of earmarks for a particular company.
Allison said the Appropriations committees are already gathering this information in electronic databases, so there would be no additional cost.
Senate Appropriations spokesman John Bray noted in an e-mail that "earmarks are not unique to appropriations bills. They exist in tax bills and authorization bills and are not uniformly tracked from committee to committee. Any proposal to create a centralized database of earmarks would need to address the Senate as a whole, not just one committee."
Congress at the moment is all over the map on earmarks. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) announced in March that the committee would no longer approve earmarks benefiting for-profit companies. The next day, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that the GOP Conference had adopted a one-year moratorium on all earmarks, though a handful of Republicans have requested earmarks anyway.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) responded with a statement declaring that there would be no changes in earmark rules that the committee had previously established.
Nevertheless, Allison said he sees some hope for the Coburn bill to pass.
"There is concern about ethics in Congress," Allison said. "If that is going to be an issue in 2010 like it was in 2008 and in 2006, it is possible that a Congress looking to burnish its ethical reputation would look to pass a bill like this."