Earmark reform: Building a bridge to somewhere

The bridge was never built, (though then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin kept the money anyway). Sadly, this example is only one grain of sand in an entire beachhead of government waste known as earmarking. Earmarking is the process that allocates taxpayer dollars for projects that frequently benefit a senator or member of Congress’ home district or state. While both Sen. Stevens and the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) were renowned for their ability to pump tens of billions of dollars into their states with earmarks, other politicians from both parties have railed against such “pork barrel” spending. Yet for all the talk, they often do very little to actually fix the problem. Over the past Congress, both parties have tried to outdo each other in cutting back on earmarks, but at this point, neither party has proposed a workable long-term solution to the problem.

With politicians unable to reach consensus on this issue, my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) joined with some of Washington’s top lobbyists, including former Congressman James Walsh (R-N.Y.) at K&L Gates, and Rich Gold of Holland & Knight, as well as other non-profit groups across the political spectrum, including Citizens Against Government Waste, Public Citizen and Taxpayers for Common Sense, to find a solution. Congressman Walsh brought particular gravitas to our discussions, having himself served on the House Appropriations Committee.

Collectively, we all agreed the system is broken, and met regularly to come up with a plan to fix it. Finally, we created five commonsense principles that, if adopted by our elected officials here in Washington, would significantly increase public confidence in the earmarking process.

• Members should not direct earmarks to those who have contributed to their congressional campaigns. After a number of earmarking scandals, this represents the best way to break the link – whether real or perceived – between campaign contributions and legislative action.

• Second, congressional staff should be barred from participating in fundraising activities. Their attendance at fundraisers gives the appearance that the legislative process is for sale. Further, many of these hardworking individuals probably would prefer not to have to attend these evening and early morning functions, but cannot easily refuse to attend.

• Third, Congress should create a unified, searchable, sortable and downloadable database of all earmarks on a public website. Finding an earmark should be as easy as finding the book you’re looking for on Amazon.

• Fourth, the Government Accountability Office should regularly and randomly audit projects to ensure that the taxpayers’ dollar is being spent wisely. Let’s be sure the money is spent the way it is supposed to be.

• Finally, members of Congress should take responsibility for their earmarks by certifying that the recipients are qualified to perform the work. A lawmaker should have to stand by any earmark he or she believes is a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

There it is: a straightforward five-point plan to clean up the congressional earmarking process. As CREW and others work to build a better Washington, this plan represents an important step forward. It provides a road map for legislators to do the right thing. Some will tell you these principles are not feasible, but if you actually believe that, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn… or Ketchikan.

Melanie Sloan is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).