Earmarks data now set to go online in phases

The White House Office of Management and Budget published some information on spending earmarks to the Internet late Monday -- a departure from the detailed disclosure that OMB outlined earlier this year.

In a Jan. 25 memorandum, OMB directed all federal agencies to submit earmark details from every appropriations bill so OMB could post the data points online by Monday. The order followed the president's call for Congress to cut the number and cost of earmarks by at least half.

The earmark data previously scheduled for release Monday had included recipients of the federal money, costs, project descriptions, whether the projects are first-time or continuing items, account names, whether the earmarks are funded through discretionary or mandatory funding, and other elements.

But OMB Press Secretary Sean Kevelighan said the information posted on the Web Monday will be the first phase of the effort and will only include "aggregate data on the number and cost of earmarks down to the agency and account level."

"In the coming weeks," the Web site will display the rest of the data, Kevelighan said. "There's an incredibly large amount of information that we're talking about. For this reason, [the rollout] will be broken up into separate phases to make sure everything is accurate and certified."

The partial public showing, which happened to coincide with the start of the annual Sunshine Week campaign for greater government transparency, did not surprise many in the open-government community.

"They deserve a lot of credit for trying to do this. It is a tremendously ambitious project" said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. But he added, "It would behoove them to address the question of whether there was something else that was slowing them down."

Allison wondered whether the White House might have been worried about passage of the president's fiscal 2008 budget request. "A question may be, did they sacrifice transparency to keep on the good side of congressional appropriators."

When asked if there was an additional reason why OMB chose to release data in aggregate, Kevelighan, replied, "Before we move forward in providing even greater detail, it is important everything possible is done to ensure the data is as complete and consistent as possible, and is presented in such a way that it cannot be misused or perceived incorrectly."

John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and a vocal critic of pork-barrel spending, stated: "It's disappointing that the administration has fallen far short of its own standards of transparency. Taxpayers have a right to know not just how much of their money is spent but how it is spent."

Adam Hughes, the director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch, said that if the White House fears releasing earmark details might embarrass members of Congress, "this underscores the need for transparency in the first place."

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