Senate Earmark Disclosure Varies Widely

Posted May 19, 2009 at 6:08pm

Most Senators appear to be technically complying with the chamber’s earmark disclosure rules, but a lack of uniformity in how earmarks are reported can make it difficult to get an accurate picture of how the practice is being used by different Members.

Under new earmark rules adopted by Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), lawmakers requesting earmarks are required to post them on their official Senate Web site.

However, the new rules do not include any standards for where the earmarks should be posted, the format that they should be posted in or even whether they need to be called earmarks at all.

As a result, individual offices use a patchwork of file formats, locations and other individual quirks that make it difficult to find — and in some cases read — the earmarks, according to separate analyses conducted by Roll Call and the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation.

According to a Democratic aide on the Appropriations Committee, Inouye and Cochran decided to post their own list of links to the requests on the committee’s site to avoid confusion and help the public access the requests. The list was developed “to consolidate the request disclosures in order to make them more readily accessible to the public,— the aide said.

Nevertheless, Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, argued that a lack of consistency in the postings undercuts the effectiveness of the rules.

“The purpose is to give the public a chance to scrutinize these requests— before they become law, Allison said, adding that “I really feel like they’ve missed the mark.—

While some Members include links to their requests on the home page of their Web sites, others include them in various subsections. For instance, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) includes his requests in the “Investing in Missouri— section of his site, while Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) includes his requests under his “News Center— section.

Additionally, Members appear to use a variety of terms to refer to the requests. While Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) both list their requests in the “legislation— sections of their sites, Alexander calls them “project requests— and Begich calls them “appropriations requests.—

Similarly, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) refers to his earmark requests as “Illinois Projects— on his home page.

In some cases, the location of requests was not readily apparent. For instance, Allison said the Sunlight Foundation was only able to locate earmark requests on the Web site of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) when using a special Google search function and not through simple navigation of the site.

Additionally, at least two senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee — one Democrat and one Republican — included complete lists of requests, as well as links to those requests, only after being contacted by Roll Call.

The format used by lawmakers to disclose their requests also varies widely. While some lawmakers use easily searchable PDF files linked on their sites, others use poor-quality pictures of the actual requests. Some, like Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), used other methods, such as posting a series of press releases on her earmark requests.

Allison argued that the Senate should bring greater consistency to its disclosure rules, noting that if watchdog organizations have difficulty tracking down the information, it is unlikely average citizens will have better luck. “It’s a huge problem in that every single Member does it in a different format,— Allison said, warning that, “We’re insiders, we kind of follow this stuff … the average citizen isn’t going to be able to find it.—