Why no one trusts Congress

One reason Congress is out of touch with America is that lawmakers play by rules that would be out of bounds anywhere else in the country. Imagine the outcry, for instance, if a school board member secretly blocked a vote, or spent taxpayer dollars, without the knowledge of colleagues or taxpayers.

But audacity is standard operating procedure on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, an obscure procedure called "the hold" allows any senator to anonymously block virtually any action without disclosing a reason. And in the House and Senate, members often direct money to pet projects without review by fellow lawmakers.

All of this is stunningly hypocritical, given that many members decry such tactics but then torpedo reform efforts. Just days ago, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, put together a bipartisan effort to ban secret holds. Then Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., tacked on an unrelated — and controversial — amendment on immigration, forcing Wyden to pull the original measure.

"We got kneecapped. I don't know how to describe it any other way," a frustrated Wyden said during floor debate.

Similar gamesmanship has stalled earmark reform. While House and Senate leaders began requiring lawmakers last year to post earmark requests on their official websites, the information is presented in such a scattered and random way that only the most persistent citizen can track spending moves.

That's the way too many lawmakers prefer it. Although earmarks make up only a small portion of the federal budget and sometimes fund worthy projects, the dense process can hide blatant favors to campaign donors and waste taxpayer dollars.

Fixing these problems isn't exactly rocket science. Wyden should come back with his secret-holds bill and hope this time that the Senate shows the gumption to act in the public interest. Plus, the House and Senate should create a public online searchable database for all earmark requests and consider linking these requests to lobbying data.

President Barack Obama called for more openness around earmarking during his State of the Union address, and a cadre of lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., agrees.

The Library of Congress already operates a searchable website called Thomas.gov that allows anyone with a computer to track bills by lawmaker, committee, status and other criteria. So why shouldn't congressional earmarks, which feed on taxpayer dollars, be as open to public scrutiny?

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