Sunday, August 05, 2007

Earmarks Still Secret

Lynne loves to chat earmarks on our podcast, so maybe I should send her a link to Bill Moyers's discussion of them at the national level. After the Democrats were elected in '06, they came with the promise of reform to the earmark system - where politicians can tack on federal dollars to private, pet projects - and not attach their name to it or debate the worthiness of those projects on the floor. Earmarks never get discussed in committee and the press rarely picks up on them, for reasons I'll get to below, so they've become remarkable tools to both reward loyal politicians (often willing to screw over the American people) and protect vulnerable incumbents by helping them send home some extra bacon.

Well, as Moyers gets to on his show, the Democrats in D.C. did reform the system - in some very important ways. First, now every earmark has to come with a request - both including the name of the Congressman who wants the earmark, as well as the reasons they feel its needed. However, out of the several important reforms the Democrats did make, they seemingly forgot (yeah, right) to make a big one: the access to this information is limited, at best.

You can flip through the letters and see what the-- what people asked for. But you can't remove a copy of that or have any other copy of that. You can't make any photocopies. But you can feel free to take notes." If you have any questions, I'll try to help. But y'know.... You go to the transportation committee, another committee that also does earmarking, the committee that brought the bridge to nowhere, they just have a file box there. And you can just flip through the file folders by congressional district and look at the letters. But again, they sit there and watch you while you're doing it. And you can take some notes, but that's it.

What? Anyone think Nancy Pelosi can do better? What this also means is that, to see any of the earmarks before they're actually passed, people have to actually be in the presence of the office in which is requesting it: that means they have to be in D.C. Notice how none of this information isn't what I'd call widely available online.

The saddest thing is that most of these earmarks aren't even ending up tangently helping the American people. A very large chunk of it is going directly toward the Pentagon: the well funded Pentagon isn't even asking for these earmarks, it's the defense industry that wants these extra billions. Furthermore, there have been recent projects that have been found to directly benefit a congress person's pocket book, yet found perfectly ethical according to the ethics committee.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes they strike pay dirt. Ellis' colleague Erich Zimmermann helped the LOS ANGELES TIMES analyze the record of Representative Ken Calvert who was angling last year for a seat in the ear-marking factory known as the Appropriations Committee. Zimmermann spotted $5.6 million dollars earmarked for a transit center in Corona, California. When he looked closer, he found that the Congressman owns seven nearby commercial properties that stood to benefit.

ERICH ZIMMERMANN: Right here is where the Transit Center is gonna be built. And you can see some of these properties are actually very close to the Transit Center. The pins represent the properties that he owns. When we see a pattern where somebody's property so clearly surrounds a project it just raises questions. And we ask those questions of other people that may be interested in those questions as well and we try to get a sense is this abnormal? Is this normal? Is this increasing property values?

BILL MOYERS: Congressman Calvert appealed to the House Ethics Committee. The committee cleared him on the grounds that other nearby property owners stood to benefit too. In other words, the tortured ruling meant that if Calvert's neighbors gained from his earmark, so could he.

STEVE ELLIS: So, essentially, we would have to be having the taxpayer build a new bathroom in Representative Calvert's house for it to be determined to be actually an earmark that benefits him.
Here's a quick way to draw down the deficit: stop the dirty earmark system. The federal government is far too small to properly analyze the over 32,000 annual earmark requests (that's hundreds per congressman), yet we have government agencies that oversee where most of this money is going anyway: the Federal Highway Department, the Defense Department, etc. While Congress should certainly oversee these agencies to make sure they're doing a good job, they shouldn't pick and choose every minute project and pretend that they're experts enough to know when the Defense Department needs billions of dollars in planes they didn't ask for. What Congress should do is create a mission statement for them, then allow them to do their job. This system of political rewards - and bloating budgets - has got to go. Step one in doing that is making the process transparent.

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