Monday, March 12, 2007

OMB Earmark Database Falls Short

The OMB site for tracking earmark data is here.

I am disappointed, but not for the same reason as Ace and Mark Tapscott. Tapscott says that he always understood that the data released would include all available information regarding the Member(s) of Congress who requested an earmark. It was never my understanding that data would be forthcoming.

OMB has a lot of data on the topic; many Members of Congress, in the course of communicating with the Executive Branch regarding an earmark, identify themselves as the sponsor. I'm unaware of any requirement that they do so, however. A Member of Congress must identify him or herself to the Appropriations Committee when requesting an earmark obviously, but there is no reason the same Member would be forced to do so with the administration. So while OMB certainly has data on many earmark sponsors, it's a virtual certainty that there are many cases where they don't.

It was in recognition of this that I expected OMB to post the specific earmarks, rather than aggregate agency totals. Because if you know that there is an earmark of $40 million for a highway expansion in Lawrence, Kansas, it's generally easy to track down the sponsor. You ask the House Member in the area, as well as the state's two Senators. And if you can't get an answer, you go to the agency that received the funding. You'll almost always know who the sponsor is quite quickly.

So if you have the project specifics, you can find the sponsor - even in the many cases where OMB doesn't have that answer.

But there's a more important reason for OMB to post the specifics of the earmarks: it will shame Members of Congress into not requesting silly things.

If you know that someone earmarked $40 million for a highway expansion in Lawrence - well, you might object to the practice. But if you knew someone had appropriated $40 million for a museum about the whaling heritage in the same community, you'd want to make damn sure the sponsor was defeated for re-election for wasting public money. By making it far harder to obtain that data, OMB has done the public a disservice.

There's nothing preventing OMB from coming back and revising their approach. If they were in fact cowed by members of the Appropriations Committee - as Tapscott says - then that's a great disappointment. It also makes me want to take back everything I said about how brave the administration is.

Update: Read Tapscott's second column explaining at greater length why it's important to have all available data on the Members requesting earmarks.

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