Is the US Congress for sale?
That’s the question voters are invited to assess with a new database, unveiled this week, that links lobbying and campaign contributions with member projects, or earmarks.
The new database is a collaboration between two respected Washington watchdog groups: the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions and lobbying, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmarks.
The database documents more than 20,000 member projects worth $35 billion, along with $226.8 million in campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures for fiscal years 2008 and 2009.
In a fiscal year with a $1 trillion-plus federal budget deficit, $35 billion for earmarks may seem like small change. But the process opens a rare window on the exercise of power on Washington, especially potential conflicts of interest.
"At a minimum, earmarks granted to lawmakers' friends and supporters merit scrutiny and indicate potential conflicts of interest," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, in a statement.
“This information will help Americans decide for themselves whether their congressional representatives are beholden to the voters who elect them – or to elite interests bankrolling their campaigns,” she added.
As expected, members serving on the House and Senate Appropriations committees, especially the defense subcommittees, are the top sponsors of earmarks. In the Senate, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, won 95 (solo) earmarks, valued at $349.6 million for FY 2009. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, who replaced him as chair in the 111th Congress, ranked No. 2, at 71 earmarks, worth $221.7 million.
“While certainly no one would assert that every member of Congress receiving a campaign contribution from an earmark recipient was doing so for the purpose of financial gain, the House of Representatives simply cannot continue to permit the appearance of impropriety associated with members providing no-bid or sole source federal contracts to campaign contributors,” he wrote in a June 3 letter.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t had much success yet either legislatively or convincing the committee to move ahead on its own,” says spokesman Matthew Specht.
Watchdog groups say it’s difficult to prove that campaign contributions are in exchange for official actions, such as earmarks. That requires written or recorded evidence clearly establishing a quid pro quo. But the new database will help citizens ask their own questions of elected officials.
“These are not cases that have to be developed or tried in a court of law or in the ethics committee. These are activities that should be judged by citizens throughout the country,” says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a public-interest group that promotes transparency in government.
“When you make the information available and accessible to the average citizen or the online citizen, you spread the level of accountability for what goes on in Washington. Then you find out what needs to be fixed,” she says.
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