Transparency takes a hit

Robert Bluey
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Posted: Mar 31, 2007 12:00 AM
Transparency takes a hit

Long before many Americans paid attention to pork-barrel spending, the Congressional Research Service did. The legislative agency, tasked with producing reports for members of Congress, monitored the rapid rise of earmarks for 12 years, beginning when Republicans swept into power in 1995.

But a new day has dawned in Washington. With Democrats at the helm of Congress, CRS has decided it no longer needs to track the pork in spending bills. While the agency has denied any political motive and Democrats have pleaded ignorance, fiscal watchdogs in Congress smell something fishy.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, is taking the decision personally. As a frequent user of CRS, Coburn had come to rely on its non-partisan, objective research. He used the CRS earmark reports to shed light on some of the peculiar projects his colleagues secretly stuffed into legislation, often in the dark of night. (Remember that indoor rainforest in Iowa and the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska?)

Now, Coburn is fighting back. He has vowed to introduce an amendment to each spending bill requiring CRS to prepare an analysis of congressional earmarks.

“They [CRS] don’t have a good reason for not doing that, other than the fact that there obviously has been some implied pressure if they continued to do so,” Coburn recently said on Fox News, citing congressional appropriators as the culprits. “That’s something we depend on, and now we don’t have that as a source.”

CRS has said its research is no longer needed because the Office of Management and Budget will track earmarks -- a true statement, except for the fact that its information is nowhere near as comprehensive. CRS also cites new rules adopted by Congress to publicly disclose earmarks. However, the House rule applies only to 2008 spending bills, not previous ones, and the Senate’s rule is still bottled up as part of the Democrats’ stalled ethics reform bill.

As the debate over earmarks drags on, Americans may finally get a close-up look at CRS, a notoriously secretive agency that refuses to share any of its reports with the public -- a policy made not by some government bureaucrat but by members of Congress themselves. Taxpayers, meanwhile, spend more than $100 million per year to fund its research.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who vowed to make this Congress the “most honest, ethical, and open” in history, is facing pressure to do something about CRS. A coalition of 20 organizations last week lobbied her to make CRS reports publicly available. And later this month, the Open House Project is expected to deliver a report to Pelosi that will call for CRS to post its reports on a publicly available website.

Granting the public access to this valuable information would also end a burgeoning business in Washington. The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund recently reported that a company called GalleryWatch sells CRS reports for $4,000 a year. Its website boasts of “unprecedented access to thousands of reports previously unavailable or, at best, extremely difficult to obtain.” (The company’s president won’t say how he gets them.)

CRS has no way to combat the GalleryWatch problem, which gives “insider” information to those with deep pockets and leaves the public in the dark. One ingenious way to put companies such as GalleryWatch out of business would be for a member of Congress to begin posting all CRS reports online. Not only would it solve the problem related to accessing these reports, but it would also eliminate the possibility of government employees profiting at the taxpayers’ expense. (One website, Open CRS, already posts some CRS reports, but only a fraction of what the agency produces.)

Coburn, for all his frustration with CRS over the earmark dispute, is still one of the agency’s most ardent supporters. He sees the recent change in policy on earmarks as political meddling that could taint the agency’s work. But more importantly, he worries that American taxpayers will lose out on valuable information they should know -- especially when it involves their money.