Driving Transparency

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This week, the same committee that five years ago foisted the Bridge to Nowhere on the American taxpayer went a different direction. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee launched a sortable, downloadable database of three years’ worth of earmarks under their jurisdiction. With this database, never again will taxpayers be kept in the dark about parochial, non-debated projects slipped in at the last minute. Sad to say, but even this simple database leapfrogged any current earmark transparency efforts in Congress.

The database will include earmarks from any bill under the committee’s jurisdiction; it will be updated in real-time as legislation moves forward and will include additional information including letters of support from local project advocates. What is even more impressive is that Chairman Oberstar (D-MN) unilaterally decided to raise the bar for every other committee on both sides of the Hill.


The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee transparency measures follows on the heels of the Appropriations Committee’s demand that all lawmakers post their earmark requests on their website when they submit them and a ban on earmarks to for-profit entities. We applaud the progress, and these reforms must be included in the rules for the 112th Congress and enforced House wide.

Which reminds us of the goings on over on the Senate side. Following up on a challenge the President made in the State of the Union, Sen. Coburn (R-OK) and others drafted bi-partisan legislation that has garnered 27 co-sponsors to create the big enchilada earmark databases. The Earmark Transparency Act (ETA) directs the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House to create a database that would include earmark requests, awards, and all sorts of amplifying information about the project and beneficiaries. The potential cost of the project will be paid for by excess funds in Senators’ annual office accounts. We’re excited about this because this one-stop shopping would give taxpayers cradle-to-grave knowledge of all these pet projects – and something Congress – not TCS – should have been doing all along.

The ETA passed the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on an 11-5 vote. But final passage of the legislation is far from clear. Sen. Levin (D-MI), who successfully scuttled another attempt to pass the legislation a month ago, threw out several red herring arguments about scope and ability of lawmakers to provide the required data. From our perspective, if lawmakers can’t provide background data on their earmarks for a database, they shouldn’t be requesting taxpayer dollars for them in the first place!

All this wrangling in the committee vote makes one wonder if the bill will ever get to the floor. Neither the Majority nor Minority Leader is a paragon of earmark transparency or reform. In fact, Sen. Reid (D-NV) fought against the current earmark transparency provisions, so it’s hard to see him finding room in the crowded Senate calendar to move this bill.

But if we’ve learned anything in our years of work on bringing transparency and accountability to how Congress makes spending decisions, it’s that you can’t stifle reform forever. So we’ll keep pushing and advocating on behalf of the American taxpayer.

Submitted by Taxpayers for Common Sense