Editorial: More transparency needed

Nancy Pelosi is a compelling national figure, destined even — if November’s political stars align in her favor — to be an historic figure. San Francisco’s very own member of Congress, if enough Democrats win seats in its chamber, could become the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line to become president.

San Francisco would be justly proud, The City’s faithful voters knowing they’d sent the personification of all things progressive back to Washington to redo the misspent Bush years. But isn’t transparency at the top of the progressive agenda? Judging by her dissenting vote last week, we’re not sure she understands that.

Sure, “transparency” may have become an all-purpose, feel-good word in this era of too much corruption. You might say we need clarity when we define it. But it’s not true that one citizen’s transparency is another’s opacity. Something is either visible or it isn’t.

Take “earmarks,” that livestock handler’s word that, in Washington, has come to denote a congressman’s practice of slipping into a spending bill a discrete allocation of taxpayers’ money directed to a pet project, commonly called “pork.” A congressman can do that anonymously, keeping undetected the link between its beneficiaries and his donors and friends, often the same people.

That Capitol Hill folkway has led to many a political scandal, most recently the mega-scandal revolving around super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. So bipartisan reformers in the Senate stepped in to offer transparency, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn teaming with Illinois Democrat Barack Obama to push legislation that would place federal expenditures online in a Google-like data base for the voters’ viewing pleasure.

Coburn-Obama passed. In the same spirit, a House bill last week made a stab at identifying earmarkers online. Rep. Pelosi voted “nay.” Go figure.

Maybe it was because, as heroffice told us, the reform didn’t go far enough. Many congressmen, after all, actually want to advertise their sponsorship of bridges, hospitals, post offices and the like.

And maybe it’s a coincidence that Minority Leader Pelosi has emerged as one of the top earmarkers, accountable, reports The Wall Street Journal, for $7.9 million in monetized constituent service. So does Pelosi want to take credit for $1.5 million for HIV/AIDS research or not? Or another $1.5 million for mental health services? Or the multiple grants to the promising educational services of the KIPP Foundation? Those are among the 16 earmarked projects we found designated for San Francisco (you can find them at http://www.examiner.com/earmarks/california.html).

Are these Pelosi’s earmarks? Presumably, but we cannot be sure because her office, after several weeks of our requests, hasn’t verified them. That’s a shame, because many of her constituents doubtless would find these projects uncontroversial, even laudable. The mystery breeds suspicion about donor payoffs, which she certainly doesn’t need while poised to become the next speaker.

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