Just Give Us the Data! Transparency and Change

Yesterday my government transparency site WashingtonWatch.com rolled out a transparency campaign (along with many collaborators) called “Just Give Us the Earmark Data!”

Visitors to Earmarkdata.org are encouraged there to sign a petition asking Congress to publish data about earmarks in formats that are useful for public oversight. Developers can also participate in perfecting the data schema that will capture the “earmarks ecosystem” in the best possible way.

After a surprisingly successful effort at “crowdsourcing” earmark data last summer, the push for earmark transparency gained steam in January, when President Obama spoke about it in his State of the Union speech. A White House “fact sheet” issued the same day called for a “bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark.”

(We were going to ask for good earmark data anyway, but this gave the idea currency in a lot of quarters.)

The focus on earmarks and transparency got the political calculators whirring on Capitol Hill. “Is earmarking worth doing considering the political heat it is going to draw?”

One set of actors came up with their answer last week. House Democrats announced that they would restrict their earmarking only to non-profits. They want for-profit businesses seeking taxpayer money to go through conventional channels like competitive bidding.

The next day, House Republicans came back over the top of Democrats’ political bet. They announced that they would forgo earmarking entirely.

That’s House Democrats and House Republicans. Don’t assume that earmarking is going to go away. A good-government bidding war is on, though—spurred by the political challenge of transparency.

A couple of observations, least important first:

  • If it wasn’t obvious before, this illustrates that politicians are very capable political risk balancers. Indeed, surfing political waves is arguably the primary task of elected officials, most especially at the national level, and without this skill, they are goners. (That’s why looking for a wellspring of principle in an elected official usually gets you swamped in disappointment.)

    I’ve had a number of friendly cynics suggest that politicians wouldn’t mind earmark transparency—bringing home the bacon brings in the votes! This appears in general not to be true. There may still be earmarking from a hard core group who do perceive overall political benefits from it, but they’ll have to buck their parties, who do not.

    (Alas, I can’t say “I told you so!” because I tended to just grin and say “Maybe you’re right!” For future reference, I agree with the tendency, but doubt the direct outcome described in the adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Thankfully, it’s more complicated than that.)

  • Notable: Elected officials’ political tuning is not just reactive. The anticipation of earmark transparency is what started this bidding war.This is especially worth noting with respect to President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise, which I most recently reported on here. Skeptics have said that President Obama’s promise to post bills he receives from Congress online for five days before making them law wouldn’t make any difference because a bill that Congress has sent down Pennsylvania Avenue is already final. But a parochial amendment hanging out there for five days threatens to draw political discredit on its author and supporters—and their party. Sunlight Before Signing was a meaningful promise.

    (SBS has two advantages over the creditable “Read the Bill” proposal to hold bills 72 hours before a vote in Congress: 1) SBS takes advantage of interbranch rivalry, and 2) it was a campaign promise of the president!)

  • Broadly, this episode illustrates how transparency can bring welcome change. It’s correct to observe that earmarks represent only a tiny part of overall spending. But applying parallel transparency efforts to other parts of the legislative and regulatory processes are likely to elicit similar good behavior from government officials. There are manifold directions to go with government transparency. Each in its way stands to create political dynamics more congenial to good government and—more importantly—to liberty.