In his ethics agenda, Barack Obama promised to "shed light on all earmarks by disclosing the name of the legislator who asked for each earmark, along with a written justification, 72 hours before they can be approved by the full Senate."
Let's begin by noting that an earmark is a requirement that money approved by Congress be spent in a specific way at the request of a lawmaker. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good. So it's no surprise that Obama, like his 2008 presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has targeted them for reform. But, in reality, the president has only limited leverage on earmarks. The rules on how Congress operates are up to Congress.
Disclosing who is behind an earmark is complicated because during lawmaking, disclosure can be made at the beginning, at the end or both.
We'll start by discussing the earliest type of disclosure — publicizing the initial request for an earmark. Both chambers treat requests equally, ever since a January 2009 agreement between the two chambers' Appropriations Committee chairmen, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis. They agreed that all earmark requests, along with a justification, have to be posted on the sponsoring lawmaker's Web site when they are submitted to the Appropriations Committee for consideration.
In one sense, this represents a step forward: Traditionally, earmarks that have been requested but ultimately denied have not been publicly disclosed. But this approach falls short of full transparency, because the justification letters are scattered over more than 500 lawmakers' Web sites. Not having a central site adds to the difficulties for watchdog groups and ordinary citizens who want to know how Congress is spending taxpayer money.
"Technically, the justification is out there, but you would have to find the earmark in the bill, see who the sponsor is, go to that member"s Web site, find where the earmark request letters are on the site, which can be well near impossible, and go through all the requests to match up the letter to the earmark, which can also be difficult, to find the justification," said Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "That is not fully transparent. And isn"t truly what the president wanted to do."
Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy at the watchdog group OMB Watch, agreed: "You can't just make data available. You need to do so in a way that's easily accessible, or else transparency won't be achieved."
Now let's turn to the kind of disclosure Obama seems to be talking about — disclosure of earmarks that are included in a final bill that's nearing a floor vote.
Broadly, Obama seems to have modeled his promise for Senate earmarks on the system now used in the House. The House requires that all successfully inserted earmarks be disclosed, along with the sponsor's name, in the bill. A letter of justification for why they are needed and other details are posted on a committee Web site.
The Senate doesn't provide the same degree of transparency for bills approaching the floor. Names of lawmakers sponsoring earmarks are, as in the House, included in the bill itself. But the chamber offers no provision for posting justifications on the Internet.
In addition, neither chamber has taken up the president's suggestion of a 72-hour rule. The policy now in force does not guarantee a full list of successful earmarks 72 hours before a floor vote.
Still, the chairmen did agree to earlier earmark disclosure in one respect. Disclosure information is now available when a bill is discussed in subcommittees, rather than later when it's in the full committee — one step earlier in the process. (If a subcommittee markup is not held in the Senate, disclosures are promised 24 hours before the full committee markup.)
All in all, the chairmen have improved the congressional earmarking process incrementally, but what they've done falls short of what the president sought. And the president can't do much on his own to implement a more transparent process — other than the fairly radical step of vetoing an appropriations bill. So we rate this promise a Compromise.