Watchdogs Demand Transparency on Congressional ‘Earmark’ Communications

Groups want communication between members of Congress and agencies on discretionary spending made public

October 7, 2015

Watchdog groups are pressuring the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to enforce an executive order and make communications between members of Congress and government agencies available to the public in regards to spending on earmarks.

Cause of Action and Demand Progress sent a petition to OMB on Wednesday calling for the agency to enforce the pro-transparency rule that would make public communications between Congress and the agencies in charge of disbursing funds for special projects.

The executive order in question was first signed into law by President Bush in 2008 and states that "executive agencies should not commit, obligate, or expend funds on the basis of earmarks included in any non-statutory source, including requests in reports of committees of the Congress or other congressional documents, or communications from or on behalf of Members of Congress."

Members of the House and Senate are currently prohibited from inserting earmarks into legislation. However, they often use emails, phone calls, letters, and personal visits to pressure staff on making funding decisions, Demand Progress noted in a statement.

"The executive order does not prohibit these communications, but it would drag them into the daylight," the group said. "An investigation by Cause of Action, described in the petition, shows how the Obama administration allowed the order to fall into desuetude. We believe spending decisions should be made on the merits and in the sunshine."

Cause of Action conducted the investigation on federal spending dating back to 2011 and found that the executive order, intended to constrain "abusive" earmarking and politically pressured spending, has not been thoroughly enforced and is susceptible to political influencing.

"The current earmarking regime, where Congress has issued a moratorium on earmarks, shifts some pork-spending determinations from Congress to Executive Branch agencies," the petition reads. "Earmark decisions that were once made by statute, tying an agency’s hands, are now earmark requests, which were once written into committee reports and given great deference by agencies, are now made in secret by letter, phone, or in person."

"Altogether, ‘Executive Branch Earmarks,’ which allow political appointees and others to use federal monies to reward political allies, appease powerful interests, and/or engage in insider deal-making, demonstrates the need for OMB to act," it continued.

The groups are demanding that the agency confirm that the executive order binds discretionary spending, affirm that it is prohibited to allocate discretionary funds in response to congressional requests and that agencies are not obligated to fund such requests, and acknowledge that individuals can and do pressure decisions in relation to spending.

They additionally ask that communications dealing with the discussion of earmarks become publicly available records and that executive departments and agencies make these records available on their websites within 30 days of receiving such communications.

"Cause of Action’s research shows that for years, federal agencies have been ignoring a binding executive order designed to protect taxpayer dollars from being misused," said Cause of Action executive director Daniel Epstein. "Our organizations believe that Washington has a duty to the public to ensure that federal discretionary spending decisions are transparent and merit-based."

A policy director for Demand Progress elaborated on this notion, saying the Obama administration must enforce the current executive order and provide greater measures to ensure transparency.

"The administration must add a measure of transparency to earmark requests received by executive branch agencies," said Daniel Schuman. "Federal spending decisions should be made on merit and in the sunshine. There already is an executive order on the books that addresses secret calls and letters by Congress and special pleaders. It is time to enforce it."

Published under: Transparency