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Monday, July 24, 2006

One Man's Secrecy is Another's Earmark

Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters points out a fundamental truth - secrecy in government is sometimes necessary but it is always an opportunity for somebody to do something illegal behind closed doors. Disgraced former congressman Randy Cunningham provides vivid demonstration of this truth.

Ed develops this critically important point with his latest post at Heritage's Policy Blog, where he has recently been added to the writing stable. The observation sprang from a CNN report Sunday that Cunningham used the intelligence budget's secrecy to conceal the favors he was giving and getting by having aides insert amendments in bills that would never be made public.

Cunningham resigned from Congress and is now serving a prison term after being convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes from defense contractors.

But a similar effect of secrecy frequently operates on other legislation in Congress:

"Let’s not kid ourselves that only the intelligence budget is vulnerable, however, and for the same reasons. Other appropriations bills and committee reports have the potential for billions of dollars of pork, and usually deliver on their potential.

"That the appropriations bills for Education, Agriculture, Transportation, and so on do not get classified makes their line items no less opaque to the voters. In many instances, earmarks get added without any identification as to the Representative or Senator sponsoring the spending."

And when nobody is looking over their shoulders, Members of Congress will insert thousands of earmarks into spending bills and thereby buy votes, reward friends and financial supporters and otherwise abuse the legislative process. Such corruption is encouraged by secrecy and can only be rooted out with sunshine.

But even when earmark authors are exposed, as is happenning steadily more frequently as more bloggers focus on Congress, the sheer volume of earmarks that remain makes it essential that sunshine be shining light on as much federal spending as possible, not just selected appropriations bills:

"In cases where identification occurs, the sheer volume of such earmarks makes public accountability a joke. That’s why Senator Tom Coburn’s efforts to build transparency into the federal budget should interest anyone who worries about the corrosive effect earmarks have on politics and ethics in Washington."

This fact is why Coburn's proposal has attracted such widespread support in and out of Congress, with co-sponsors in senators Barack Obama, D-IL, Tom Carper, D-DE, John McCain, R-AZ, Hillary Clinton, D-NY, Gregg, R-NH, Allen, R-VA and others. There are also nearly 100 civic and advocacy groups representing the broad expanse of the political spectrum from Left to Right lining up behind the Coburn measure.

You can read Ed's complete post on the issue on the Heritage Policy Blog here. Ed will be posting there frequently, so be sure and blogroll the site.