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Editorial: Save Those Docs

There are, or should be, paper trails for many things that Congress does, including earmarks, those Member-requested funding provisions that allow lawmakers to focus federal spending on priorities in their states or districts. Earmarks, of course, have sparked controversies such as the “Bridge to Nowhere— and scandals including one involving the PMA Group lobbying firm.

House ethics committee investigators are looking into PMA, whose offices were raided last fall by the FBI. The firm was an earmark factory, helping clients collect government money in multimillion-dollar troves over two decades and spreading campaign contributions to a handful of favored House appropriators.

Investigators — whether for the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, or for the Justice Department — presumably will be interested in how requests for funding these earmarks circulated through each step of the legislative process.

But, as Roll Call reported Tuesday, there may not be much of a paper trail leading to the millions of dollars in earmark requests submitted to the House Appropriations Committee before 2007.

Although House rules require committees to preserve their official records, which get deposited at the National Archives, there are no rules governing how Members must handle their own documents. Last year, the House and Senate passed a resolution encouraging Members to archive their records, but there remain no standards or requirements.

Formal, written earmark requests are among the things treated as property of individual House Members and not of the House. Members decide what to keep and what to toss.

That’s not a big deal going forward, in the case of earmarks, because the House Appropriations Committee now posts earmark requests on its Web site. But it is a problem in looking back at past earmark patterns. And the absence of standards for maintaining documents in Members’ offices could be a larger problem.

Democrats railed at the George W. Bush administration whenever there was a hint that it had failed to document some policy meeting. Vanished e-mails provoked accusations of criminal coverup. Congressional Republicans routinely directed their ire toward the Clinton White House over similar issues. And one day soon, inevitably, the GOP will warn in the direst tones: “We sure hope the Obama people can produce the records on this or that.—

Like Major League Baseball, governing is a game of records and it is critical that each team — the White House and Congress — keep the official scorecards that detail who initiated what actions and how decisions were made. The result is accountability, something both parties and branches of government extol as a high virtue.

The Presidential Records Act — which President Barack Obama took steps to strengthen upon taking office — sets the standard for the White House. Congressional reforms implemented in 2007 aimed to increase transparency in the legislative process. We believe there should also be a formal policy on document retention for Members of the House — and Senators, too.

Congress needs to complete the task of preserving the records of its own activities. Lawmakers have insisted that the executive branch meet that standard, and members of the legislative branch should do so as well.