Tag: Earmarkdata.org

No, Senator Durbin, Earmarks Are Not Transparent

This morning the full Senate voted down a proposed rule that would have barred earmarks for the next two years. Part of the reason? Earmarks are transparent.

Here’s Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), quoted in a Hill article:

There is full disclosure in my office of every single request for an appropriation. We then ask those who have made the requests to have a full disclaimer of their involvement in the appropriation, so it’s there for the public record. This kind of transparency is virtually unprecedented.

Senator Durbin doesn’t know transparency. Take a look at Senator Durbin’s earmark disclosures. Yes, you can read through them, one by one. But can you make a list of recipients? Can you add up the totals? Can you search for common words in the brief explanations for each earmark? Can you make a map showing where recipients of Senator Durbin’s requests are?

No, no, no, and no.

That’s because Senator Durbin puts his request disclosures out as scanned PDFs. Someone on his staff takes a letter and puts it on a scanner, making a PDF document of the image. Then the staffer posts that image on the senator’s web site. It’s totally useless if you want to use the data for anything. Notably, Senator Durbin doesn’t even include the addresses of his earmark recipients.

Last year, visitors to my transparency project, WashingtonWatch.com, laboriously took earmark disclosures like Senator Durbin’s and gathered the data from them. Now—because of their work—you can see a map of Illinois earmarks and the list of Senator Durbin’s requests for FY 2010.

Early this year, President Obama called for “a comprehensive, bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark before a vote is taken.” He wasn’t talking about WashingtonWatch.com or the public doing this work—he was talking about Congress putting a database together with earmark data in useful formats.

Later in the early part of the year, I worked with a small group of transparency activists to show Congress how to do earmark transparency. Earmarkdata.org has our earmark data schema—the guide to producing earmark information in a way the public can use. (You can sign a petition there to support earmark transparency.)

No, Senator Durbin, your earmarks are not transparent. We’re producing the state-of-the-art database. We’re setting the precedent for transparency. Your PDF-image disclosures are a day late and a dollar short.

Here are the votes on the earmark moratorium taken in the Senate this morning. A “No” vote supports continuation of earmarking. A “Yes” vote is opposed to earmarking.

Federal Spending Transparency: Unlocking the Power of Abstraction

I’ll present a short paper and lead some discussion on federal spending transparency today at an OMB Watch conference entitled “Strengthening Federal Spending Transparency: A Working Conference to Develop a Plan of Action.”

My paper is called “Federal Spending Transparency: Unlocking the Power of Abstraction.” It builds on lessons I learned from developing the Earmarkdata.org model aimed at getting earmark information out of Congress.

Information scientists will find the paper amateurish and riddled with imperfections. Policy people will find it obscure and dense. That’s what you get when you translate between two languages and cultures.

The goal:

Each piece of the policy making process—the budgets, bills, votes, etc.—should originate as structured data, feeding directly into the information infrastructure that the transparency community creates. A budget should come out not just in paper and PDF versions, but as a data set containing all the meaning that exists in the physical documents.

Make sense? If not, you’ll want to get yourself to where it does.

Congress to Produce Earmark Data?

A bill introduced in the Senate yesterday would require Congress to bring earmarks out of the shadows, producing earmark data in a format that the public can easily use.

S. 3335 calls for a “unified and searchable database on a public website for congressional earmarks.” This is something President Obama called for in his 2010 State of the Union speech, though we haven’t heard much more from him about it since then.

Importantly the bill is not just about a web site. The bill would enable the public to “programmatically search and access all data in a serialized machine readable format via a web-services application programming interface.” That gobbledegook means that people could access the data for themselves, slicing and dicing it to learn whatever they want or to display it however they want.

I’ve noted here before the efforts of my government transparency web site WashingtonWatch.com to capture earmark data and the related effort to get earmark data directly from Congress at Earmarkdata.org.

The bill was introduced by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), and is currently cosponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO). Its House counterpart is H.R. 5258 (Cassidy R-LA), which also has bipartisan support.

Support for these bills across parties and ideologies suggests good things may be in store for earmark transparency.

Earmark Requests Going Online — In Wrong Formats

As required by rules instituted last year, members of Congress are posting their earmark requests online. And in a small improvement over past practice, the House Appropriations Committee  is posting links to all those pages (in alphabetical order and by state). The Senate Appropriations Committee is doing the same.

So, great. You can go line-by-line and figure out what requests your member of Congress has put in. But what’s the total number of your members’ requests? What’s the total amount of his or her requests? Who requested the most earmarks, in dollars or in number? Where in your district is the money supposed to go?

HTML pages and PDF documents are very hard to work with and don’t allow us to answer these questions. The Earmarkdata.org project is asking Congress to produce information about what it’s doing in formats that are useful for public oversight. Cato’s December 2008 policy forum on this topic was called “Just Give Us the Data!

The Earmarkdata.org site has a petition people can sign to ask their representatives to produce good earmark data.

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.