Editorial: Imperfectly Clear

Posted May 22, 2009 at 2:58pm

Democratic Congressional leaders can legitimately pat themselves on the back for increasing the transparency of the earmarking process — which only raises the question, “Why not make it perfectly clear?— Right now, it’s far from that.

Prior to 2007, Members’ funding requests for district or state projects were submitted to the Appropriations and Transportation committees with no identification of their sponsors or beneficiaries and no justification for their passage.

Disclosure, if it could be called that, consisted of scattered, often impossible-to-understand reporting buried in massive appropriations or authorization bills, eliminating chances for prior review and comment.

This secret process inevitably led to corruption, scandal, criminal convictions — and reform. Earmark requests now have to be disclosed and Members have to stipulate they have no financial interest in the projects they sponsor.

So far, so good — but still far from good enough.

The House and Senate Appropriations committees and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee require Members to disclose earmark requests on their Web sites. But the manner of disclosure varies so widely that only the most diligent watchdog could come anywhere near a successful system for tracking them.

Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, spent a weekend searching 435 House Web sites and found 111 listings of earmark requests on Members’ home pages. But some were labeled “Priority Programs,— “Community Funding Requests— or “Openness and Accountability.—

Another 210 Members disclosed their requests in more difficult-to-find fashion, including one who listed them under “Issues— on her home page and then at the very bottom of each issue category.

With 124 Members, Allison said, “I concluded that if I couldn’t find earmarks after 10 clicks, they either didn’t submit any or didn’t disclose it.—

Similar difficulties face searchers on Senate Web sites, where some earmarks are disclosed only in posted press releases.

Moreover, searching for earmarks actually passed is an onerous process. The House Appropriations Committee lists them on subcommittee Web sites, where it takes up to five minutes to download huge PDF files, which then have to be printed out and hand-searched.

The fact is that the Appropriations and Transportation committees receive earmark requests from Members online and could post them immediately on receipt. Appropriations processes requests using spreadsheets that easily could be posted as well.

Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) have introduced a bill in cooperation with Sunlight and Taxpayers for Common Sense designed, at last, to make the earmark process fully transparent and uniform.

It would require listings on Member home pages under the word “Earmark,— listings to be maintained for a full Congressional session and committees to maintain a searchable database of requests.

These reforms wouldn’t entirely eliminate earmark corruption, but they would make tracking it less a game of hide-and-seek.