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Earmark Disclosure in (Temporary?) Recession

March 26, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

All of the recent scrambling to define exactly what an earmark is may be leading to less transparency in their disclosure. The Wall Street Journal is reporting on an accusation by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) (pictured at right, foreground) that the Appropriations Committees, and presumably their Democratic Chairman, are twisting the arm of the Congressional Research Service in order to help them cover up wasteful spending:

>Nothing highlighted Congress’s spending problem in last year’s election more than earmarks, the special projects like Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” that members drop into last-minute conference reports leaving no opportunity to debate or amend them. Voters opted for change in Congress, but on earmarks it looks as if they’ll only be getting more smoke and mirrors.
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>Democrats promised reform and instituted “a moratorium” on all earmarks until the system was cleaned up. Now the appropriations committees are privately accepting pork-barrel requests again. But curiously, the scorekeeper on earmarks, the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service (CRS)—a publicly funded, nonpartisan federal agency—has suddenly announced it will no longer respond to requests from members of Congress on the size, number or background of earmarks. “They claim it’ll be transparent, but they’re taking away the very data that lets us know what’s really happening,” says Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. “I’m convinced the appropriations committees are flexing their muscles with CRS.”
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>Indeed, the shift in CRS policy represents a dramatic break with its 12-year practice of supplying members with earmark data. “CRS will no longer identify earmarks for individual programs, activities, entities, or individuals,” stated a private Feb. 22 directive from CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan.
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>When Sen. Coburn and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina submitted earmark inquiries recently, they were both turned down. Each then had heated conversations with Mr. Mulhollan. The director, who declined to be interviewed for this article, explained that because the appropriations committees and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) were now preparing their own lists of earmarks, CRS should no longer play a role in the process. He also noted that both the House and Senate are preparing their own definitions of earmarks. “It is not appropriate for us to continue our research,” his directive states.

This is not the first time, recently, that an attempt to be tough on earmarking has been called bluff. President Bush, as part of his Statue of the Union promise to reduce earmarks by 50%, said that he called on the Office Of Management and Budget (OMB) to post a database of all earmarks requested by members of Congress in the 2005 budget. The data that was released reveals much less than expected — it only provides an overview of earmarks, no specifics or information about what the individual earmarks are. When the report was released, Mark Tapscott claimed that Bush Has Caved on Earmarks:

>When I heard last week from Hill sources that the White House congressional liason staff was pressuring OMB Director Rob Portman to not release all of the earmarks requested by Members of Congress to executive agencies under the FY2005 budget, I called the OMB press office.
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>When I asked for a copy of the earmark database and copies of all correspondence between OMB and executive branch officials and Members and Hill staff, I was promised a call-back from a senior OMB spokesman. Not surprisingly, that call never came.
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>Now this morning, word is circulating on the Hill that the Bush administration is going to release only a limited database of earmarks later today or maybe no database at all, but just aggregate or summary data.
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>Seems the White House legislative staff fears releasing the database would offend members of the appropriation committees in Congress. So, the public gets the shaft, again, on a topic on which there is no doubt where the American people stand.

The OMB’s website states that “the information currently available is a work in progress and will be updated in the coming weeks.” We’ll have to wait and see if the information in the finalized report is satisfactory. If the data provided by the OMB is as complete as the CRS data was, we’ll be ahead in terms of transparency because the information will be available to the public as well as lawmakers. However, if the data update does not add much in terms of specifics and just fills out the summary data where it is still incomplete, the earmark information which was once available to lawmakers will be lost to what is only the facade of an improvement in transparency. Posting data online is only a step forward in transparency if it provides the public with useful information.

>And in any case, CRS works for Congress, so it is bizarre for it to claim work being done by the executive branch as a reason to deny members information it was happy to collect and release in the past.

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