Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Christian Science Monitor on Exposing Earmarks

Push grows to reform the way Congress spends:

...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."...



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