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Friday, August 18, 2006

Was Earmarks Project a Conservative Conspiracy to Undermine Social Services Spending?

Among the most thoughtful responses to the Earmarks Project was that of Prof. Jay Rosen of New York University who is proprietor of the excellent PressThink blog.

Rosen understood immediately and described succinctly the potentially historic significance of the project in the development of networked journalism on the Internet.

Here's how Rosen put it:

"Today marks a key moment in the evolution of the Web as a reporting medium. The first left-right-center coalition of bloggers, activists, non-profits, citizens and journalists to investigate a story of national import: Congressional earmarks and those who sponsor and benefit from them.

"This is networked journalism ('professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story') beginning to come of age, and it's very much in the spirit in my initiative NewAssignment.Net."

He also provided a handy list of reasons why the Earmarks Project "is a significant marker in the history of web journalism:
  • "It's trying to bring new facts to light: 'which members of Congress sponsored the 1,867 secret spending earmarks worth more than $500 million in the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriation bill now before Congress.' That information is a secret right now.
  • "It's the work of a coalition that crosses partisan lines - from Zephyr Teachout to Glenn Reynolds, if you will.
  • "It's about a fundamental matter of accountability in elected government: will members of Congress own up to their concealed actions?
  • "The story is still in motion. As The Examiner said, 'Congress may still modify the bill, approve it as is or reject it.' This is journalism in time to make a difference. As Dan Gillmor notes, 'It could work to shame Congress people into at least telling the truth about their special favors.'
  • "It enlists Net users across the country in the collecting and sharing of information of vital public importance.
  • "Journalists in Washington do what they can do best ('Examiner reporters will be asking questions on Capitol Hill about many of these earmarks in coming days') citizen-reporters do what they do best - contacting their Representatives as concerned constituents demanding answers.
  • "It develops a pool of common data that different partners can interpret and talk about in their separate ways. Therefore they don't have to see eye-to-eye on everything, just the importance of bringing these facts to light.
  • "It has a clearly measurable goal by which to discern progress: More than 1,800 appropriations, the authors of which are unidentified. The more who are identified the more successful the project.
  • "It shows that in newspaper journalism Web innovations are more likely to come from outside the established players - in this case billionaire Philip Anschutz's Examiner chain (See Jack Shafer on Anschutz and innovation.)
  • "It couldn't be done without the Net."
Folks who have an interest in or need to understand where new media is headed would do well to spend some time reading and studying Rosen's post, including the After Matter section and the comments, plus Rosen's explanation of his NewAssignment.net proposal for a new kind of media organization.

In the meantime, I want to correct the record on a suggestion that appeared in the comments to the Rosen post that those of us involved in the Earmark Project specifically chose the Labor-HHS appropriations bill in an attempt to derail federal social service spending - i.e. Since the coalition members are mainly from the Right, the effort must be part and parcel of the heartless GOP's continuing effort to repeal the Great Society and throw the poor to the wolves.

Salon's Scott Rosenberg put forth the criticism this way:

"Why am I not surprised that the conservative Anschutz papers are looking at the earmarks in a social services appropriations bill? I'm sure there's plenty to find there, it's not a worthless effort, but ... the unfolding details of the Cunningham saga, as in the eye-opening confessions of Brent Wilkes in the Times, suggest that the most outrageous earmarking (a k a 'bribery') is happening in the military appropriations area. Let's see Anschutz go after that."

I posted this response to Rosenberg:

"Scott, The Examiner didn't initiate the examination of the Labor-HHS appropriation but we were excited about joining it because of the paper's commitment to transparency in government whenever and wherever possible, including at the Pentagon. If you are interested in further understanding where the Examiner editorial page is coming from, you should check out my congressional testimonies on the Cornyn-Leahy FOIA reform bill and the Coburn-Obama Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.

"Link to the Senate Cornyn-Leahy testimony.
"Link to the Coburn-Obama testimony. (Pdf)"

Then in subsequent comments, Mark Howard of NewsCorpse.com insisted that the coalition members could easily have picked a different appropriations bill to focus on but didn't as a result of ideological bias:

"While there is a valid argument that all sides in the earmarking debate support openness, that doesn't mean that there is no prejudice in the selection of this project. At the completion there will be conclusions drawn that reflect poorly on the earmarkers. And I suspect the results of this project would show a larger group of liberal or Democratic earmarkers than a project researching an energy bill or one for the military as Scott noted.

"The heavy representation of arch conservatives causes me to fear that there is a hidden motive to do damage to Democrats. That may not be the case, but the perception itself is the problem. That perception can have an impact on the participation of others, on funding, and perhaps even on the reporting. I can't be the only one to harbor such fears."

I was frankly dumbfounded by Mark's assertion of an ideological agenda in the selection of the Labor-HHS bill and responded with this needlessly nettlesome comment:

"Mark@News Corpse, you literally do not know what you are talking about. There was no 'selection.' None. Zero. The Labor-HHS bill was literally the only bill available. For the record, I would give both of my eye teeth to have a comprehensive listing of all the earmarks in all 13 appropriations bills, especially including the DOD measure.

"And that level of transparency will be achieved as long as there are smart, energetic people across the political spectrum who are not so blinded by ideological prejudice that they are incapable of seeing important common ground."

To which, Mark responded:

"Firstly, the Labor bill was not literally the only bill available. It may have been the only bill that fit your criteria. You could have selected a bill that had already passed, but that did not comply with your criteria. That is literally "selection," which you claimed there was none of. So I guess it's also not true that I literally don't know what I'm talking about."

At this point, I thought it best to continue the conversation off-line and emailed this query to Mark:

"Here's what you said: 'Firstly, the Labor bill was not literally the only bill available. It may have been the only bill that fit your criteria. You could have selected a bill that had already passed, but that did not comply with your criteria.'

"You appear to have access to information that I don't regarding what was available to the Earmark Coalition. Your response will be published."

I expected to be flamed in response, but instead received this thoughtful message from Mark:

"All appropriation bills that have passed are available to you with the earmarks they contain. The difference in this case was, as Zephyr Teachout said: 'This is the first list of earmarks any congressional source has provided to us to do such work on in advance of the bill passing.'

"The point I was making was that the bill selected for the earmarks project did not have to be one that had not yet passed. Exposing the sponsors of earmarks in a bill that had already passed would still serve the purpose of advancing transparency. The advantage to using a bill that has not yet passed is having the potential to derail it. That could be a desirable thing, but it is not requisite to the project."

Mark's first sentence is the key to the misunderstanding at the root of this exchange. It is not true that "all appropriation bills that have passed are available to you with the earmarks they contain." Here's why:

Only two other appropriations bill has been approved by both chambers in Congress and sent to the President, the Department of Homeland Security bill, which contains no earmarks, and the transportation bill, which is infested with earmarks.

Unfortunately, even with appropriation bills that do pass both chambers and receive a presidential signature, there is no section conveniently labelled "Earmarks Listed Here." The earmarks are obscured in legislative language throughout the text of the bill that becomes law and it requires a trained legislative eye hours and hours of close examination to ferret the earmarks out. Even the best such experts can often miss the earmarks.

Even so, Mark is still having none of it, insisting in a subsequent email that:

"You keep coming up with new justifications for your decision making. First it was having info for a bill in advance of its passing. Now it's convenience. So now it comes down to your having made the selection because it was easier - because you didn't have to dissect the bill yourself to identify the earmarks. I don't mean to trivialize that, I know that's a big job.

"But my point is still correct. A choice was made. Other choices were available but were not considered due to your criteria. It's that simple. What I am missing is how we can be debating whether a selection was made when the answer is so obvious.

"By the way, there are resources for obtaining lists of earmarks from previous bills. There are people and organization that have pretty much done the work for you. I'm pretty sure you're aware of at least one of those resources Citizens Against Government Waste."

Why do I reproduce this lengthy exchange? Because I think it highlights one of the most important reasons why Congress is able to abuse the earmarks so easily. The legislative process itself is too often an arcane, multi-level cacaphony of confusion to anybody without lots of experience inside it and it bears only the most superficial relationship to the civics book description students were once taught in high school.

Congress is able to hide behind its self-imposed complexity, much of which is hidden away from public view. As government gets bigger and more intrusive, the costs and potential dangers of decisions made behind closed doors increases exponentially. And that is why, my many liberal friends, big government is always and everywhere the enemy of transparency and accountability.

Now, if my conservative friends can also understand that limited government need not be small-minded nor blind to social injustice, perhaps all of us across the political and ideological spectrum can recover a friendly common ground upon which to have a reasonable non-partisan discussion about what to do with this monstrosity we have together created on the Potomac.