Tag: WashingtonWatch

Wednesday Links

  • There has been talk that House Democrats are planning to “deem” the health care bill into law without calling for a vote. If you’re not sure how that process works, read this.
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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.

Transparent Health Care Legislating?

Will Americans get “quality time” with proposed health care legislation before it passes?

Some say no: The Senate Finance Committee recently turned back an effort to put Chairman Max Baucus’ bill online for 72 hours before the committee’s vote. The Committee is on the wrong side of history.

Transparency shifts power away from the center, so it’s favored by those out of power. It’s no wonder that Republican representative John Culberson, a member of the minority party, is putting H.R. 3400 (a significant health care bill) online for comment, using a tool called SharedBook.

Transparency won’t be a gift from government. It is something we have to take. That’s why I think the action lies in private efforts like OpenCongress, GovTrack, and (my own) WashingtonWatch.com. (Links are to sites’ H.R. 3400 pages.)

The public has a way of conforming their expectations to what’s possible, and transparent law-making is entirely possible today. Closed processes like the Senate Finance Committee’s consideration of health care legislation will not satisfy the public, and it will emerge from the committee with one strike against it irrespective of the merits.

Earmark Horse Hockey

I’ve been poring over the earmark request data collected in WashingtonWatch.com’s big earmark hunting contest, and correlating it to the earmarks that made it into bills. It’s slow going, so far …

But the excitement level sure builds when you take a look at what the money’s going to!

Do you have your tickets to the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up rodeo yet? It’s going on right now!

And you stand to contribute $500,000 to Pendleton Round-Up Foundation, which puts it on, thanks to an earmark in the Senate version of H.R. 3288, The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010.

Senator Wyden (D-OR) requested $3.5 million for the facility where the rodeo is held. Senator Merkley (D-OR) requested a more modest $365,000.

The report for the bill has the federal government sending $500,000 to the Pendleton Round-Up Foundation for “reconstruction and construction needs of facilities which are critical to the local economy.” That’s right: The folks in Pendleton, Oregon want you to send them a half-million bucks for their “critical-to-the-local-economy” rodeo ring.

The people in Pendleton probably love their rodeo, and they’re entitled to! But it’s an open question whether they should be entitled to use your money in putting it on. For my part, I say horse hockey!

Arizona to Feds: No “Enhanced” Drivers License

Last week, the governor of Arizona signed H.B. 2426, which bars the state from implementing the “enhanced” drivers license (EDL) program.

If the federal REAL ID revival bill (PASS ID) becomes law, it will give congressional approval to EDLs, which up to now have been simply a creation of the federal security and state driver licensing bureaucracies.

As governor of Arizona, the current Secretary of Homeland Security signed a memorandum of understanding with the DHS to implement EDLs, and she backs PASS ID even though she signed an anti-REAL ID bill as governor. As I said before, Secretary Napolitano seems to be taking the national ID tar baby in a loving embrace.

“It’s a Lot Easier to Promise to Change Washington Than It Is to Actually Change It”

The New York Times has an interesting story on President Obama’s continuing failure to follow through on his “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. On the campaign trail, he said he would post bills online for five days before signing them. Two dozen bills now have his signature, and only one has been posted for five days before signing.

The article (and accompanying video) fixes on a couple of reasons why the president might be excused from carrying out the promise. One is the technical difficulty of managing potentially hundreds of thousands of comments. The promise did not include a promise to publish comments, though – much less to read them (though it would be politically astute to appear to do so). In my view, the difficulty of administering a public comment system – which was not part of the promise – does not excuse the failure to post the bills Congress presents to the president for five days before he signs them.

A second excuse is that posting bills online would be ineffectual. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation is quoted saying, “There isn’t anybody in this town who doesn’t know that commenting after a bill has been passed is meaningless.”

I have done my level-best to illustrate how a five-day hold at the White House would have good effects on reducing earmarks, parochial amendments, and other shenanigans – such as congressional approval of bonuses to AIG executives.

Miller’s preferred approach – placing a similar hold on bills before they leave Congress – would have a similar effect – but nothing dramatically more open. Just as under a presidential hold, members of Congress and Senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments. Just as under a presidential hold, they would carefully avoid a blossoming of debate about their pet projects at the end of the legislative process. A congressional hold would change the upstream behavior of the politicians – just like a presidential hold would.

A presidential hold and a congressional hold are both good ideas, and they are not mutually exclusive. The presidential hold has a key advantage: The president has already promised it – to the cheers of American voters.

The New York Times story reports a small step toward meeting the actual terms of President Obama’s pledge:

“In order to continue providing the American people more transparency in government, once it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”

If this means posting links to bills on the Thomas legislative system from Whitehouse.gov, this is something the White House has done sporadically, and it would increase transparency by a small margin if it were regularized. The administration should establish a uniform URL where bills are posted so that every American can easily find every bill the president signs. But, in terms of fulfilling President Obama’s promise, “posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it.”

I think this is grudging progress toward implementation of President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. In the video, the author of the Times article has the best line illustrating why the White House deserves modest congratulations for taking this step: “It’s a lot easier to promise to change Washington than it is to actually change it.”