Jacob Sullum

In a letter posted on Congress.org, a constituent praises Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., for his "brilliant intellect." As evidence, Mitchell's admirer cites the congressman's vote for the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

The margin by which the act passed -- 411 to 8 in the House and 83 to 14 in the Senate -- takes some of the shine off Mitchell's brilliance. Still, he's probably smart enough to realize what his colleagues evidently understand: Congress' new honesty and openness are not what they're cracked up to be.

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requires that special appropriations added by individual legislators be listed in an online database at least 48 hours before they come to a vote. Critics such as Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., complained bitterly about a loophole: Congressional leaders can certify that a bill contains no earmarks, and there's no way to challenge that determination.

A deeper problem is that publicity does not deter wasteful, parochial spending that legislators want to publicize. Consider what happened last month when Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., challenged a $100,000 appropriation for a prison museum near Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The earmark's sponsor, Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., defended the honor of Leavenworth County, bragging, "We probably have more prisons than any other county in the United States." She indignantly added, "The local residents are proud of their heritage, and rightly so," because Leavenworth has hosted the likes of George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Nazi spy Fritz Duquesne.

The House approved Boyda's earmark by a vote of 317 to 112. Later she told The New York Times, "Democracy is a contact sport, and I'm not going to be shy about asking for money for my community."

So far this year, the Democratic House has approved spending bills that include about 6,500 earmarks, more than twice the whole-year total of a decade ago but not quite keeping pace with the Republicans' record of nearly 16,000 in 2005. Far from shaming legislators into fiscal restraint, the Times reports, "The new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members' clout" and "intensified competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving."

Congressional shamelessness likewise may undermine the goals of the new Senate ban on anonymous holds. A hold occurs when a senator refuses to allow a bill or nomination to proceed by unanimous consent, thereby requiring the measure's supporters to muster 60 votes to even bring the matter to the floor for debate.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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