Obama, Earmarks, and Transparency

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Photo credit: ervins_strauhmanis

Demand Progress and Cause of Action filed a petition urging the government to enforce a Bush-era executive order to make earmarks transparent. While the House and the Senate recently prohibited the insertion of earmarks — directed spending toward a particular project — into legislative documents, members of Congress, often at the behest of special pleaders, use letters, emails, phone calls, and personal visits to pressure agency staff to make funding decisions in favor of favorite businesses or pet projects.

The executive order does not prohibit these communications, but it would drag them into the daylight. An investigation by Cause of Action, described in the petition, shows how the Obama administration allowed the order to fall into desuetude. We believe spending decisions should be made on the merits and in the sunshine.

{ Read the petition }

The executive order, should the administration choose to issue regulations through the Office of Management and Budget to enforce it, is simple. It requires departments and agencies to make available to the public all written and oral communications concerning earmarks, and all discretionary funds when the agency is pressured to give favorable treatment to an entity. It also affirms that agencies may not allocate discretionary funds in response to congressional requests unless the determination is made on merit and the request is publicly-available.

This falls in line with the administration’s early ethics-related efforts. The economic stimulus and financial bailout both contained novel provisions that added clever, new approaches to curbing undue influence. Indeed, the administration made efforts to revive the executive order, only to eventually desist.

We believe that earmark requests, no matter the form, should be transparent to the public.That means the public should see who made the request, the nature of the request, and the reasoning behind it. This sunshine should deter inappropriate special pleading and close a significant loophole whereby special interests exert undue influence.

A final note. There are a few prominent people who seem to long for the era of secret earmarks, backroom deals, and so on. They believe that a little honest graft and backroom smoke is what kept the political system running. This is nonsense. I challenge anyone to read this interview with Lyndon Johnson’s bag man, Bobby Baker, conducted by the Senate historian, and remain enamored with yesteryear trading of sex for votes, literal buying of votes with bags of unmarked bills distributed on the Senate floor, and the like.

The truth is there is plenty of room for members of Congress to have quiet conversations. There are plenty of opportunities for members of Congress to trade favors and work things out. But some activities should be beyond the pale, and others should be visible to the American people. We have a right to see how, and why, the government spends our tax dollars. This executive order will help do that.

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— Written by Daniel Schuman