Separation of earmark powers

By

 Updated:

As both parties in the House attempt to get the upper hand on earmark repudiation, Florida Republican John Mica also tossed a curve ball to the White House last week. Cut down on the "Executive earmarks," the congressman wrote in an op-ed for The Hill, arguing that branch of government's spending "has not come under similar scrutiny."

Mica, the ranking member of the House Transportation committee, pointed to a stimulus grant program at the U.S. Department of Transportation, which last month awarded $1.5 billion to projects around the nation. A streetscape project in downtown Dubuque, Iowa, spotlighted in a Center story in January, was among the recipients of the so-called TIGER grants, a cross agency effort to competitively award transportation projects with significant regional or national impact. In the spirit of Sunshine Week for open government advocates, Mica demanded that the DOT show the math on its decision-making process.

“Unelected bureaucrats,” Mica wrote, “determined that Florida, with the 7th highest unemployment rate, would receive no TIGER grant funding at all.”

A DOT team is preparing a detailed response about how the selections were made from a field of more than $59 billion in applications for the TIGER funding, said department spokesman Bill Adams.

But calling attention to executive branch earmarking reflects back on Congressional transportation earmarks as well.

One of Mica's aides criticized the TIGER program at a Washington conference on Monday for revealing only a dollar amount and brief blurb about the winning projects. But even that incomplete analysis arguably provided more information than the legislative branch offers in its spending bills. The DOT outlined not only the grant amount, but the overall cost of the project, which indicates how much local or state governments will need to pony up to responsibly leverage that grant, something Congress fails to disclose.

Should DOT also identify information like project co-sponsors, who Department officials spoke with, or what gave one project the leg up over another, it would be going head and shoulders above Congressional transparency. Last year, for instance, lawmakers earmarked more than 1,000 highway, transit, and railroad projects in an annual appropriations bill. Citizens could access brief descriptions of those earmarks, the member or members who requested them, and the amount of funding. But Congress was less forthcoming about which companies also lobbied for an earmark. A Center analysis of thousands of lobbying disclosure documents revealed that development interests spent $5.5 million lobbying for transportation earmarks last year and millions more on Congressional campaign contributions.

Although lawmakers must describe project benefits to leadership and post a list of their earmark requests via their websites, no mechanism exists to track why or how some requests appear in final legislation while others are left out. Many lawmakers make the valid argument that facing their local electorate justifies those decisions made by their staffs, but do not extend the same logic to presidential appointees at the Transportation Department.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island alluded to what might be a step toward legislative earmark accountability during a Senate Public Works hearing last week. Responding to testimony from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Whitehouse asked if local governments could create more transparent lists of their greatest transportation needs to help avoid the stigma of political dealmaking.

Another reform mechanism for all government spending might come from tighter lobbying registration, which President Barack Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address. “It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress,” Obama said. The Sunlight Foundation, for one, would like lobbyists to do that within 24 hours of a meeting, as well as disclose funding requests. The filing would be an added labor for lobbyists, but open government advocates argue that requiring disclosure filings only four times a year limits the ability to bring real-time accountability to government.

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now