Obama’s Laudable Earmark Transparency

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[April 17, 2008] Whether one likes or dislikes the policies promoted by Barack Obama in his run for the presidency, he is impressively committed to transparency and disclosure. Obama appears unafraid of the cleansing role of sunshine in American politics, even if the disclosures spark some critical commentary.

Last month, Obama released a list of every — every! — earmark he had requested, successfully or not, in the federal budgets for Fiscal Years 2006 and 2007. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has not released her earmarks list, nor has she disclosed the names of contributors to her family’s and husband’s foundations or released her tax returns.

This column is no fan of earmarks since they can distort the budget process and weaken the constituency for programs causing them to lose their mission and meaning when piecemealed into earmarks. They also favor politically connected nonprofits, particularly those able to hire the bevy of earmark-specializing Washington lobbyists.

Two of the earmarks sponsored by Obama go to organizations that until somewhat recently employed Barack Obama’s spouse, Michelle Obama. Like he did in 2005, Obama again requested $140,000 and secured $125,000 for the Chicago program of Public Allies, a well-respected p
rogram of recruiting and developing community leaders largely through its signature national AmeriCorps grant.i The 20 additional slots that will be made available to young people through the Chicago Public Allies office will likely be 20 positive experiences for emerging community leaders, but one can imagine other Illinois nonprofits that might have equally benefitted from those funds had they had the leverage and access — or had they been able to simply compete against their competitors on the merits of their programs.

Also in this package of earmarks is a heftier $1 million request to help the University of Chicago hospital construct a new pavilion. This is the same nonprofit hospital that employed Michelle Obama as an officer for community outreach, a position she held until the presidential campaign swung into high gear. As noted in our earlier coverage of a potential president Obama’s nonprofit values and policies, it was sometimes Michelle Obama’s role to explain and defend the nonprofit hospital’s charity care performance and policies.ii

The Illinois hospital industry has excoriated Illinois AG Lisa Madigan for her continuing efforts to boost charity care for nonprofit hospitals given some cases where they have shown huge revenues and paltry concern for the poor. A 2006 report on nonprofit hospital charity care put the University of Chicago hospitals’ proportion at 1.4 percent of total hospital expenses (compared to a 1.8 percent average for Cook County nonprofit hospitals) and 2.5 percent for the combination of charity care and half of bad debt. Obama also requested $800,000 for Swedish Covenant Hospital, whose charity care numbers in an earlier Madigan report were roughly comparable to the University of Chicago’s.

Until there is tougher regulation from the federal level to ensure that nonprofit hospitals don’t ape their for-profit counterparts, as CR has described in coverage of Senate Finance Committee hearings and commentary about the UT Southwestern scandal, the charity care performance of Cook County’s nonprofit hospitals is not illegal. A future president Barack Obama would be well advised to tap his wife’s experience on the inside of the nonprofit hospital industry to help them remember what being a nonprofit ought to mean.

We can only guess at Hillary Clinton’s earmark list. Candidates talk about transparency and allude to promises about the disclosures they’ll make when they sit in the Oval Office. For Obama, a man charged with being “all words”, his commitment to transparency is simply to do it. As Benjamin Franklin said, “well done is better than well said.”

i In full disclosure, the editor of the Cohen Report served on the national board of Public Allies for a couple of years earlier this decade.

ii Cf. Christi Parsons, Bruce Japsen and Bob Secter, “Barack’s rock;
Obama’s blunt, tough partner Michelle helps shape her husband’s politics and life and is integral to his campaign”, Chicago Tribune (April 22, 2007)