Sunday, March 30, 2008

When is pork pork?

Some say that earmarks aren't all bad. What seems like a crazy waste of money to some is really a necessary project back in a politician's district, the argument goes. But if that is true, why are members of Congress too ashamed to tell the local press about their earmarks?
In Utah, only Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson released his earmark requests when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune. He is seeking more than $100 million to fund nearly 50 projects ranging from military technology to road construction. [PDF]
Utah's other two House members refused to identify the earmarks they endorsed, but Republican Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop did release basic lists of every request their offices received from Utah groups. Somewhere on that long list are the items they have submitted for funding.
Utah's senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, will release information only on earmarks that are successful.
I can understand why some Congress critters might not want to tell some constituency that they couldn't get (or didn't try too hard to get) $X earmarked for Y's pet project, but they are going to find out sooner or later that it didn't happen. So in the end, that excuse doesn't add up. The need for secrecy doesn't really fly for me. I get that members probably trade earmarks or reduce some in exchange for others, or support ones of a powerful members so that he will support theirs...but come on guys (and gals), it is our money.

Some members of Congress, like Matheson and Obama, see the upside in disclosing their earmarks: they get to brag not only about their purported honesty and transparency, but also their ability to bring home the bacon. Similarly, not all lobbyists and bundlers are upset with the new ethics reforms, because now everyone in the Beltway get to see exactly how influential they really are.

The lack of disclosure only makes the public cynically assume that something nepharious is taking place, that campaign contributors are getting earmarks while constituents are getting hosed. Now that does happen sometimes--like Alaska Rep. Don Young's earmark for a road expansion in Florida the day after getting $40K in donations from a Florida developer--but they also happen to be illegal and Rep. Young is in danger of losing his party's primary as well as the general election, even though he has brought home the bacon for decades. The moral of the story is that sunshine, as Justice Brandeis once said, is the best disinfectant.

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