Push grows to reform the way Congress spends
The House vows to tackle earmark reform as a backlash grows from activists and bloggers.
House Republican leaders promise that even if lobby reform stalls – as it has – they will do something to rein in earmarks when they return to Capitol Hill next month.Skip to next paragraph
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The reason: There's too much flak over lawmakers who are cashing in on earmarks – legally, as campaign contributions; illegally, as bribes. Even good projects look bad when they're muscled into spending bills late in the process, anonymously, and with no competition, debate, or chance to delete them.
Despite ongoing corruption scandals, many members still find pet projects to be a political asset. Come time to craft a stump speech, incumbents can point to that new museum, hospital wing, or highway connector as proof that they are making a difference in Washington.
As a result, promised reforms don't get off the ground. Earmark reform is included in both House and Senate lobby bills, but negotiations over a final version have gridlocked. One bipartisan proposal to put all government spending, including earmarks and contracts, onto a public database was blocked this month by a senator, who is allowed by Senate rules to remain anonymous.
But a new network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and bloggers is taking up the cause. The aim: To shine enough light on the process to turn earmarks into a net political liability.
"With earmarks, you're short-circuiting the kind of open and robust debate you need on what our priorities should be ... and a system with some kind of vetting and processing," says Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a group founded in January on former Justice Brandeis's statement that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
The process of earmarking preempts the question: "Is there someone else out there who could do the whole thing better?" he adds.
Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a coalition of interest groups opposed to earmarks, released a spreadsheet of 1,811 earmarks pending in the fiscal year 2007 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill. If you knew where to look, you could find a list of earmarks on a government website. But it leaves out what reformers say is the key fact about any earmark: who sponsored it.
"Once you know who the member is, you can start asking questions such as: Is there a direct financial connection with a member of the board of directors who is a [campaign] donor? How was this hospital or training program chosen over another? Sometimes it's because it's the best program; sometimes it's because there's a lobbyist who is paid," says Zephyr Teachout, national director of the Sunlight Foundation. "We hope to turn K Street upside down."
Activists run across the political spectrum, including Ms. Teachout, who directed Howard Dean's online campaign, and conservative-leaning organizations, such as the Club for Growth, Human Events Online, the National Taxpayers Union, and the Heritage Foundation. Other participants include the Washington Examiner, the blog Porkbusters.org, and Citizens Against Government Waste, a public-interest group.