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Does it take a lawsuit for the White House to be transparent?

The Obama administration cannot have it both ways when it comes to transparency. Either the administration is in support of transparency or it isn’t, and taxpayers have a right to know, especially when their hard-earned dollars are on the line.

Why did ACORN, a community organizing group, get grants that were meant for fire fighters? Why is the Department of Energy continuing to spend up to $30 billion in loan guarantees when it lacks the ability to efficiently manage the funds and identify weaknesses in the loan review process? Perhaps it has something to do with practices like "letter-marking" or "phone-marking," where members of Congress send letters or make phone calls to federal agencies asking them to release money to entities in their home districts. Such “administrative earmarking” takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process and most often involves federal grants, which are not subject to the same legal restrictions as are contracts. 

After promises of transparency have repeatedly fallen short in the three years since the president took office, my organization, Cause of Action recently took steps to hold the administration to its word. 

Last fall, the attorneys at Cause of Action filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request into the matter of administrative earmarks. Unlike legislative earmarks, those of the administrative type originate in federal agencies – one of the largest unchecked segments of the federal government.

Following the Congressional moratorium on earmarks, the president announced his support of the ban as well as his commitment to transparency. 

On his very first day in the White House, the president remarked “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” So when Cause of Action asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to release documents that might indicate some coordination between federal agencies and members of Congress on administrative earmarks, in addition to concerns that grant dollars were not being doled out competitively, there should have been no objection. 

But the OMB has failed to release these documents. So Cause of Action is taking the White House to court, because taxpayers deserve to know if federal agencies are working behind the scenes with members of Congress to create pet projects with their tax dollars. 

In an era where transparency is not just touted, but promised, it is incredibly disappointing to be faced with an administration that refuses to cooperate. 

So why are administrative earmarks worth exposing? First, there is evidence indicating that federal grants to Democratic districts dramatically increased to coincide with key Congressional votes in 2009-2010. The inference here is that the Obama administration attempted to buy votes by dumping money into the local communities of those members whose votes are needed to push the Administration’s agenda through. 

Is that how we want our tax dollars being used by federal agencies? 

Secondly, we have at least one member of Congress unabashedly admitting to the press that though the earmark ban is in effect members of Congress will still be able to appropriate funds precisely because of the relationship between Congress and federal agencies. Virginia Senator Jim Moran said on C-SPAN’s "Washington Journal," when explaining why the Congressional earmark ban would not present problems for the Appropriations Committee, that “we know people in agencies.” 

The control that federal agencies have over millions of taxpayer dollars, coupled with the dramatic increase of federal grants being doled out under this administration, calls for accountability of these administrative earmarks. With the pressure on the White House to release relevant documents under FOIA now elevated to the District Court, it is our hope that compliance from the OMB will follow soon so that taxpayers can know the truth about administrative earmarks.

Dan Epstein, is the executive director of Cause of Action.

Dan Epstein, is executive director of Cause of Action, a non-profit government oversight organization which filed an amicus brief in Yates v. United States.