Congress’ Earmark Tracking Site Plagued with Flaws

Published May 7, 2010

Advocates of government transparency were pleased when Congress followed through on its 2009 promise to list online all earmarks stuffed into appropriation bills. But while it’s easy to see which member of Congress requested a certain earmark, the usefulness of the database stops there.

The Web sites for the Appropriations committees in both the House and Senate list the earmarks requested, sorted by representative and by state, as required by new congressional rules. But Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, notes the database is not “searchable”—meaning one can’t easily drill down into the data.

‘Difficult’ to Use
That is inexcusable in the Internet age, Harper says.

“Some of the data is available in well-done HTML, some in badly done HTML, and some were PDF documents and some were actually scanned images of lists that members had written out by hand,” Harper said.

“That’s about the most difficult way you could come up with” to access the data, he said. The database design also makes it difficult to compare one year’s earmark request with other years or even compare one legislator with another, Harper added.

Seen as a Trend
Andrew Moylan, government affairs manager for the National Taxpayers Union in Washington, DC, sees the situation as part of a government trend of doing the bare minimum to meet transparency requirements.

“There is a lot more incentive to talk about transparency and to make aspirational statements about transparency than to provide real, useful transparency,” Moylan said.

Offering a Citizen Alternative
Harper says a corrective measure can be found in “crowd sourcing,” in which Internet volunteers take on small parts of a larger job. In the current case that would mean finding and converting the earmark data for one member of Congress at a time.

“I asked the community at to take these displayed earmark requests and put them into our database,” said Harper, who helps run that Web site. “That produced the database you see at in the ‘Earmarks’ tab.”

But this citizen effort would not be necessary if Congress had a state-of-the-art process, Harper explains.

“What the Appropriations committees should do is collect this information as raw data and then pass out that data in the format we’ve prescribed for them on,” Harper said. “We probably have the most experience working with earmark data.

“When you put the data in the format we prescribe, you can look at the whole earmark ecosystem,” he added. “[Government should not even] try to produce a transparency Web site. Just give us the data and let us do it.”

Others Stepping Up
Brian Baker, president of Washington, DC-based Taxpayers Against Earmarks, says his group intends to gather all earmark requests made by members of Congress as they are put to the Appropriations committees.

Changes are slow in coming, but Moylan believes earmark reform will happen eventually.

“I think that we have a pretty strong consensus in favor of at the very least real, robust transparency for earmarks, if not a reduction or elimination of them,” Moylan said.

Tracking Influence
Many observers of federal spending say the amount of money Congress spends on earmarks is small relative to the overall federal budget. That may be true, Baker says, but earmarks still added up to $15 billion in spending last year.

“More importantly, earmarks are corrupting to the process on Capitol Hill,” Baker said.

Meanwhile, some spending hawks in Congress—such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)—say it is better to let earmarks flow so an elected member of Congress can be held accountable to the voters for how money is spent.

Moylan, disagrees, saying the real currency in Washington is not just money but also influence. Earmarks are a way to peddle that coin, he says.

“People use these earmarks as the currency for larger bills,” Moylan said. “Earmarks are rewarded in exchange for a member’s support on bills for which the member might not otherwise vote.

“That kind of horse-trading corrupts the system from within,” he added.

Loren Heal ([email protected]) writes from Neoga, Illinois.