Sunday, March 02, 2008

Alaska's Congressional Delegation Posts Earmarks Online To Improve Transparency And Rebut Negative Propaganda

Citing a new era of "sunlight and transparency," Alaska's congressional delegation will begin disclosing every request from the state for specially earmarked federal money. Full story published March 2nd, 2008 in the Anchorage Daily News.

Each request for money will now be listed on the individual websites of the state's two senators and one congressman. "We just need to provide that visibility to the voters of Alaska," said Mike Anderson, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Don Young. Ted Stevens got the idea after being subjected to repeated questions about earmarks during his most recent visit to the state, and the rest of the Alaska delegation has now followed suit.

Sen. Stevens, a top appropriator who pulled down nearly a half-billion dollars in earmarks last year in the Senate, has never been that shy about disclosing how much he landed for his home state. Neither has U.S. Rep. Don Young, who famously bragged about stuffing a spending bill like a turkey. But full disclosure of who's actually asking for the money is relatively new, although not unique to the Alaska delegation.

More than 100 members of the House and Senate either don't accept earmarks -- or if they do, they fully disclose all requests they get.

"It's certainly not the majority of Congress, but it's certainly a growing number. From our perspective, constituents have a right to know how their lawmakers ask to spend their money", said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonprofit Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Critics say earmarks are often poorly justified or publicized budget allocations that allow powerful lawmakers -- and not need or merit -- to dictate spending, often on pet projects. President Bush has also criticized earmarks, saying that they undermine the public's trust in government; he vowed in his State of the Union address to veto any future spending bills Congress sends him that do not "cut the number and cost of earmarks in half."

However, the Voice of the Times expresses a different opinion. In their column, just published on March 2nd, they state that earmarks have gotten a undeserved bad rap primarily because of their appearance, and believe that introducing more transparency will allay some concerns. They also briefly explain how the process works: Earmarks are requests are made to members of Congress, who in turn use their political skills to work them into the federal budget. Because they are customarily considered the personal privilege of individual members, they do not go through a committee review process. All that's really necessary is for constituents to sell their senators or representatives on their proposals. If successful, then the proposal can be funded. Congresspedia provides an even better explanation of earmarks.

According to Senator Lisa Murlowski, posting the earmarks on line not only improves transparency, but allows people to see how genuinely needy the state is. "By posting appropriations requests on our website we can demonstrate the real needs that local communities and organizations have identified across the state," Murkowski said. But Lisa Murkowski is not exactly a Mother Theresa, either. Since she doesn't sit on an appropriations committee, she must wield a sharp scalpel. Out of 500 or so requests per year from local governments and organizations in Alaska, she only picks just two dozen or so that she'll try to get money for.

Ted Stevens makes it easy to find the earmarks on his site. He prominently posts a link on the main page, and explains the procedure HERE, subsequently directing the reader to an alphabetized list which can be directly viewed HERE. For an example of earmarks from an individual entity, click HERE to view a 40-page PDF file showing all earmark requests from the Municipality of Anchorage (a 15 MB file which takes a couple of minutes to load, which possibly explains why Stevens' prospective Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, has never uttered a peep of criticism of earmarks).

Senator Lisa Murkowski will be following suit, and HERE is the shell of the future web page which will contain her list of earmarks.

Congressman Don Young has yet to begin posting the information on his website.

The Office of Management and Budget maintains databases on all earmarks, although it does not list the requesting lawmaker nor can it guarantee to identify the final beneficiary of the earmark.

Commentary: The real problem with earmarks is not the original concept, but the fact that it has grown to unmanageable proportions. It's obvious that the qualification bar for earmarks not only must be re-evaluated, but also must be raised. However, earmarks themselves are still justified at times; view this previous post for an explanation as to how they compensate us for the fact that so much of Alaska land is federally-owned.

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