Government Spending

The Pork Barrel Runneth Over

How bloggers stopped Ted Stevens' procedural error

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There are two kinds of reporters. The first, and most exalted, are the "shoe leather" reporters. They pound the pavement, looking for news while destroying perfectly good footwear. They stand outside courtrooms and shout questions, they chase leads through the mean streets of DC. Then there are those dubbed "ass welt" reporters by The New Republic, the ones who pound on their keyboards, sit in their offices, make the occasional polite phone calls, and chase leads though Lexis-Nexis. The name derives from the ass-shaped divot created in ergonomic office chairs by aggressive sitting. Bloggers, of course, are the apotheosis of ass-welt style.

Last week, though, bloggers walked a few yards in the shoe leather reporter's wingtips—tracking down politicians, asking tough questions, and just generally being intrepid. The result: Bloggers claiming credit for bringing an important bill into the headlines and getting it passed. And for once, they might actually deserve to toot their own horns.

The bill creates a publicly accessible database of Congressional spending on about $1 trillion worth of earmarks, grants, contracts, and loans. In other words, it's pork on parade, conveniently indexed and made available with a "Google-like search engine." Ass welt journalists (and bloggers) everywhere rejoice! And in a neat moment for representative democracy, we got to watch as senators voted to screw themselves purely on the hope that they'd be able to screw their colleagues a little bit more.

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, as it is formally known, was cosponsored in the Senate by the oddest of bipartisan pairs: Republican Revolution holdout Tom Coburn and Democratic wonder boy Barack Obama. Things were chugging alone fine, with a nice list of cosponsors including Hilary Clinton and John McCain, when someone put a "secret hold" on the bill, stopping it dead.

Here's where the bloggers stepped in and saved it from the void of obscurity into which so many of Coburn's efforts have fallen. The "secret hold," also known as a procedural hold, is a senatorial courtesy which members can use to anonymously stall a bill they'd rather not see come to the floor. Bloggers took it upon themselves to ferret out the identity of the secret holder. When the dialing for dollars and waylaying of politicians at local events ended, the results weren't very surprising (as Dave Weigel noted). It turns out the hold was placed on the bill by Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican most famous for his Bridge to Nowhere, constructed out of $233 million dollars worth of bacon. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, always ready to get in on earmark shenanigans, said he also had a secret hold on the legislation earlier in the process, which he rescinded after reading the bill.

Coburn was fulsome in his praise of the bloggers for their role in shaming the secret holder:

"The group that deserves credit for passing this bill, however, is not Congress, but the army of bloggers and concerned citizens who told Congress that transparency is a just demand for all citizens, not a special privilege for political insiders. Their remarkable effort demonstrates that our system of government does work when the people take the reins of government and demand change."

On Bill Frist's blog, whoever actually writes the blog posts for Frist gave credit to bloggers as well, citing PorkBusters, TPM Muckraker, and GOP Progress.

As usual, though, some bloggers have opted to overreach, demanding an end to the practice of the secret hold altogether. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions defended the practice quite brilliantly here. Sample line: "Frankly, it is too easy to pass bills. Bills flow through this body like water."

Until now, attempts to acquire the information that will be listed in the database required of lots of nagging and Freedom of Information Act requests—up to 60 percent of which never free any information at all—and which take months to return even when they do come back with something.

A House version was passed in June. Coburn and Obama say they have already hammered out final compromise language with the sponsors of the House version and the House is expected to take the bill back up this week.

Said Obama: "By helping to lift the veil of secrecy in Washington, this database will help make us better legislators, reporters better journalists, and voters more active citizens."

When finally called out on his use of the secret hold, Stevens said he was worried about possible bureaucratic snafus caused by the bill, and just wanted to wait for a cost-benefit analysis. This is hilariously disingenuous since (a) the CBO released an analysis in early August, and (b) according to Citizens Against Government Waste:

Since 1999, the Alaska delegation has brought home more than $3 billion in federal pork, thanks mostly to former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Stevens. The state has ranked number one in pork per capita since CAGW began calculating the statistic in 2000, pulling in $489.87 worth of pork per resident in 2006.

The bloggers who made the 100 calls to uncover the truth about the secret hold boldly broke out of the pure ass welt mode. But a really high quality ass welt reporter could have saved them the trouble. A Google search, done late in the game revealed that Coburn had already put the blame squarely on Stevens, long before whole the brouhaha began.