By Anisha Sekar, July 12, 2010

Congress and Crowdsourcing

The news seems rife with opportunities for crowdsourcing in government.

We’ve already noted how crowdsourcing could aid federal investigators digging into Goldman Sachs transactions (and even offered to categorize and tag the first 100,000 documents for free).

Now comes The New York Times story of companies skirting the House of Representatives’ recent ban on earmarks to for-profits by creating strikingly similar nonprofits that, of course, the ban exempts.

Some lawmakers are clamoring to take advantage of this loophole — already racking up $150 million in earmark requests for these newly minted nonprofits.

So who’s left to sort out the genuine nonprofits from the other guys?

As the Times notes:

In ignoring the spirit of the ban, some lawmakers are leaving it up to Congressional committees to block them, a prospect that both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill concede will be near impossible.

“No matter what they tell you, there is just no way they can police all that,” [Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ)] said. “They just don’t have the time or resources.”

So why not level the playing field? The committees may not be able to check each proposal for evidence of foul play, but a relative novice could flag the nonprofits that have strong ties to for-profit entities.

The Internet has already boosted transparency on this front. As of last year, all members of Congress are required to post their earmark requests online.

It’s time for people to take the next logical step. Rather than just reading about requested earmarks, the public can use crowdsourcing to help keep them honest.