Hillary Clinton and the Opaque Politics of Porkbarrel Spending

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • M.S. Bellows, Jr. Writer, lawyer, mediator, proprietor of Thersites and other offenses.

Transparency is essential to a democracy. When Bill Clinton assembled timber company executives, environmental advocates, scientists, and lawmakers in a public forum in Portland, Oregon to hammer out a consensus agreement on timber policy, that was transparent. When Hillary Clinton met with a similar group representing those interested in healthcare reform, but behind closed doors, that was not transparent -- and her signature healthcare reform proposal failed. When Dick Cheney assembled a similar, even more secret energy task force, it was not transparent. Basically, we like and will support transparent initiatives and candidates; we (legitimately) distrust opaque initiatives and candidates.

When Barack Obama put all his tax returns for the years 2000 through 2006 online a little over a week ago, that was transparent. If Hillary Clinton keeps her promise to put her tax returns online this week, that will be transparent. If she blanks out major portions of those tax returns (as she whited out entire pages of her First Lady schedules), that would not be transparent -- and I'll bring it to your attention. (John McCain hasn't produced his tax returns and hasn't given any indication that he'll do so, but that's no surprise -- today's Republicans generally are allergic to transparency.)

There's another important area where our candidates need to be transparent: earmarks. Earmarks are specific spending requests made by individual Senators that bypass the normal competitive bidding process for government process and/or remove the Executive Branch's discretion on how to allocate money generally allotted by Congress for categories or kinds of spending. (They're named after the ancient practice of placing unique cuts in the ears of livestock to show ownership.)

Earmarks can be helpful, because Senators should be aware of what their own state's spending needs are and it may be very efficient for them to target federal money to directly meet their state's needs, and also because they help prevent a President from rewarding or punishing individual members of Congress by spending or withholding money from particular projects that are important to them and their constituents. But earmarks also are dangerous in a democracy, because they're the most direct way a Senator can reward a supporter: construction contractor makes campaign donation, Senator earmarks federal spending on a road project that said construction contractor is positioned to be awarded, said construction contractor makes back 100 times its original "investment." Connecting campaign contributions (which are fairly transparent) to earmarks is an invaluable way of determining whether a politician is using the citizens' own money to get the same citizens to re-elect him or her -- ie, whether a politician is on the up-and-up.

But there's a problem: under one of those strange rules that only the U.S. Congress could evolve (like filibuster and cloture and "holds"), earmarks are confidential: a Senator can direct that federal tax money be spent on a particular project without the public knowing about that Senator's involvement. That rule is a travesty -- it's our money! They're our employees! -- but that's the way it is.

Understanding that this rule is unfair, and wanting voters to know what spending projects he considers important, Barack Obama has "released" -- surrendered his privacy regarding -- his earmarks. John McCain, to his credit, doesn't do earmarks at all.

But Hillary Clinton not only engages in earmarking, but she voted against a proposed bill to make earmarks public and has refused to make her earmarks public. We know how many she placed, and we know their total cost, but we don't know specifically what they are. While she's nowhere near as bad as Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi ($892 million in non-defense earmarks), she's still a pretty big spender: she was the second highest "earmark" spender in the Senate in the 2008 Defense Appropriations bill. She's no slouch when it comes to non-domestic spending either: the annual Pig Book report on porkbarrel spending released today by the group Citizens Against Government Waste (reported by CNN) reveals that:

"Sen. (Barack) Obama had 53 earmarks worth $97 million dollars, and Sen. (Hillary) Clinton had 281 earmarks worth $296 million. Sen. Obama recently said he would not request any project for this upcoming fiscal year," said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

"And of course Sen. (John) McCain has never requested them and he won't be doing so in 2009. So now the question is if Sen. Clinton will join the other major candidates in saying that she will not request any earmarks for 2009."

C.A.G.W. is wrong about one thing: the immediate question isn't whether Clinton will join McCain and Obama in pledging not to engage in secret earmarks next year. The immediate question is whether she will release her earmarks for this year (and for all prior years), so voters know what -- and who -- she spent nearly one-third of a billion dollars of our money on.

Again: McCain doesn't engage in earmarking. Obama is a modest earmarker, and has made his public. Clinton is a much larger earmarker, is opposed to making earmarks transparent, and has refused to identify the specific 281 projects she spent our money on in the last year alone.

That's secretive, not transparent. It's Cheney-esque, not Democratic. Clinton should release not only her tax returns, but also her earmarks, a.s.a.p., to let voters know where her priorities -- and her loyalties -- can be found.