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Why Transparency Beats the Earmarking Ban

March 11, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

In his State of the Union address, President Obama made a strong call for Congress to make earmarking more transparent. Instead, the House of Representatives has put in place new rules that bans most earmarking altogether. The new rules have lobbyists scrambling to figure out a work-around to make sure that their clients still get a piece of the money Congress appropriates, the New York Times reports:

Jolted by a sudden tightening of the rules, lobbyists and military contractors who have long relied on lucrative earmarks from Congress were scrambling Thursday to find new ways to keep the federal money flowing. […]

Some firms talked of partnering with hospitals, universities and other nonprofit organizations in seeking federal money, an idea that Congressional officials said might not be allowed under the new rules. Others said they planned to become more aggressive about applying directly to the Pentagon and other federal departments and agencies, and not Congress, for grant money.

First of all, if the Democrats are serious about ending earmarking to corporations, they need to address the issue of for-profits piggybacking on non-profits. We’ll know whether or not they are serious by how they deal with this potential loophole in their rules.

The big warning in this article, though, is that the earmarking rules could end up being a big step backwards for transparency and an accelerant of corruption if lobbyists react by going after federal agencies more to secure funds. The Washington lobbying game could go to a deeper level of behind-the-scenes, unaccountable influence peddling.

The problem with earmarks has never been that Congress is directing the spending. Congressional earmarking advocates have a good argument when they say that they know the needs of their districts and states better than the federal agency officials that would distribute the money otherwise (remember, earmarking doesn’t increase spending, it just directs it). The problem is how members of Congress come to know what their districts need — moneyed interests that make big campaign contributions and employ lobbyists tend to have a louder voice that ordinary constituents for convincing lawmakers of what the district needs.

That’s a problem that transparency can start to take care of, and earmarking has recently been going in the direction of increased transparency, with all earmarks, sponsors and recipients being posted online last year and a strong push from the White House to make the online disclosures more useful this year. But if earmarks are banned and more lobbyists instead go straight to working with federal departments and agencies, all of the transparency progress that has been made in recent years gets lost. Plus, the federal-money-securing game goes from elected lawmakers to anonymous federal officials who are wholly unaccountable.

One more thing. In 2007, Congress rolled 9 of their 11 annual appropriations bills into one big continuing resolution, which they said they would be banning earmarks for. Technically, they stayed true to their word — the bill had no earmarks in it. But here’s what really happened — after they passed the resolution, members of Congress immediately started lobbying federal agencies and departments themselves to pressure them into directing funds to interests in their states and districts who have lobbied them. Investigative reporting canalert us to some of this activity, but this kind of insider Washington game will never be held to account the way congressional earmarks that are published online on a single website before there’s a vote, like President Obama called on Congress to do in his State of the Union.

Image used under a CC license from smlions12.

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