The Corner

Developments in Transparency

Mark Hemingway of the Washington Examiner reviews the performances of President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. It’s not good, he says.

That is the opinion of Ellen Miller over at the Sunlight Foundation, too. As the foundation’s suggests, they’re all about transparency, especially transparency in government. Miller writes:

First, our quick review shows that a little more than half of the 30 agencies’ plans we reviewed (18) specifically identified new data to be released – 12 did not. (This includes some independent agencies.) The total number of data sets identified to be released – approximately 89.*

89 data sets identified for release – across the entire federal government!? I’m speechless.

On the other hand, there is some good news in the world of transparency; it comes from the private initiative of my colleague Jerry Brito and his collaborators Jim Harper and Gunnar Hellekson. It’s called EarmarkData.org. Here is how Brito explained the project to me:

Congress recently changed its rules to require members to disclose their earmark requests online. Unfortunately, they don’t disclose these in any consistent way. You have to hunt for where each member has decided to place their disclosure, so there’s no way to systematically analyze earmark data. The White House has promised to give us a unified database of earmarks, but so far hasn’t acted.

EarmarkData.org serves two purposes: First, it’s a petition that you can sign, asking the president and members of Congress to keep their promise and to give us earmark information in a meaningful data format that is truly transparent. Second, it’s a place for techies to help refine a data standard that Congress and the administration can use. We have a draft schema that we’re happy to give to Congress.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking. Why waste our time on earmarks when they only make such a tiny fraction of federal spending? Several reasons. First, I believe in incremental change, and if we can make a difference on this margin, we’ll be earning our keep. Second, earmark spending may be small, but it is an enabler for bigger spending. Earmarks are how members are often repaid for their votes, and shedding light on this is a worthwhile endeavor. Finally, a more transparent earmark process can only help underscore what’s wrong with Washington and why we need institutional reform.

Check it out here.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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