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From Earmarking to Lettermarking

December 28, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Disclosure in the earmarking process has never been state-of-the-art. Earmark requests and funds secured for projects are released to the public in clunky, non-machine processable PDF files that are often more than hundred pages long and are not sortable in any way, for example by sponsor, recipient, or amount. The disclosures are a far cry from being truly open government data.

But at least it’s something. As Ron Nixon at the New York Times reports today, when there’s not a formal earmarking process (e.g. the earmark-free government funding arrangement we’re operating under right now), Congress’ work to direct federal funds to their pet projects doesn’t actually stop, it just becomes much more secretive.

No one was more critical than Representative Mark Steven Kirk when President Obama and the Democratic majority in the Congress sought passage last year of a $787 billion spending bill intended to stimulate the economy. And during his campaign for the Illinois Senate seat once held by Mr. Obama, Mr. Kirk, a Republican, boasted of his vote against “Speaker Pelosi’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan.”

Though Mr. Kirk and other Republicans thundered against pork-barrel spending and lawmakers’ practice of designating money for special projects through earmarks, they have not shied from using a less-well-known process called lettermarking to try to direct money to projects in their home districts.

Mr. Kirk, for example, sent a letter to the Department of Education dated Sept. 10, 2009, asking it to release money “needed to support students and educational programs” in a local school district. The letter was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the group Citizens Against Government Waste, which shared it with The New York Times.

The district, Woodland School District 50, said it later received about $1.1 million in stimulus money.

The piece has a definite Republicans-are-hypocrites vibe, but that’s not why I’m bringing this topic up. There’s no doubt that earmarking, lettermarking and phonemarking have always been bipartisan practices. In fact, I learned about lettermarking and phonemarking in 2007 from an investigatory L.A. Times piece on how Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] and other Democrats attempted to save their earmarks by appealing to agencies just days after making a big deal of stripping all earmarks out their funding bill.

The important point here is that without formal earmarking, citizens and journalists are at a disadvantage when it comes to researching congressionally-directed spending because the information can only be gotten by FOIA requests or leaks. Instead of being able to browse earmarks for waste or possible conflicts of interest, the onus of knowing exactly what you want to take a look at is on the requestor. This is why transparency in earmarking always beats an earmarking ban. Congress should improve the disclosure process by passing the Earmark Transparency Act and they should go further by creating an open, participatory and competitive process for earmark end-users to submit their projects for federal funds.

Above photo of Rep. Jeff Flake [R, AZ-6], one of the most persistent supporters in Congress of banning earmarks, is by DavidAll06 and used under a CC license.

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