Bennett Report Stresses Importance of Budget Accountability and Transparency

“Earmarks are like a narcotic drug,” said Washington attorney Robert Bennett, as he highlighted the major findings from his investigation into DC Council contracts and grants Tuesday. Among his recommendations, Bennett said the DC Council’s current practice of earmarking should be discontinued because it is “not a sound method for appropriating public funds.”

We strongly agree with Bennett’s conclusion.

In recent years, the non-competitive awards of public dollars to selected nongovernmental organizations’otherwise known as earmarks’ have increased dramatically. A table on page 46 of the Bennett report shows there were only two earmarks totaling $1.25 million in fiscal year 2005. Four years later in fiscal year 2009, 154 earmarks were proposed, totaling $48 million .

DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray took steps to reform the process last year by making organizations meet certain criteria, but the Bennett report clearly shows stronger action is necessary. (The Council removed all earmarks from the fiscal year 2010 budget due not only to news accounts raising questions about certain organizations receiving funds but to close a large budget shortfall.)

Transparency and accountability are the cures for this budget ailment. The Bennett report homed in on the problem: “The informal method by which grantees are selected clearly does not ensure that public funds go to the best or the most effective organizations to deliver intended services.” Additionally, Bennett noted that members of the council seem to have a gentlemen’s agreement to refrain from questioning each other’s earmarks, further limiting accountability.

All that said, many of the groups who receive earmarks provide critical services and meet needs that the government does not. But the non-competitive nature of the grantmaking makes the process ripe for misuse of precious taxpayer dollars, and it generates a great deal of cynicism about DC government.

The Bennett report recommends the DC Council eliminate the non-competitive awarding of earmarks. Other jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County, have a competitive process to allocate public dollars to community organizations, and in the past we have urged Chairman Gray and his colleagues to use those as models for how to move forward.

Yet if the Council chooses not to follow this recommendation, Bennett urges greater reform and tighter oversight of the earmarking process. Among the recommendations:
“¢ Eliminate the use of fiscal agents
“¢ Require organizations to be incorporated for at least three years
“¢ Have organizations document that they do not have a conflict of interest
“¢ Cap total earmark funding in the budget

We urge the DC Council to quickly adopt Bennett’s recommendations to strengthen our budget process and ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to the greatest public benefit for all.