Reporters’ findings prove the need for more transparency on who benefits from congressional earmarks

Consequent to complaints and pressure from the tea party wing of the Republican Party and watchdog groups, Congress last year passed a two-year ban on new budgetary earmarks. The Senate extended its ban for another year last week. But the impact of earmarks remain with us still. Some, notably Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), argue the self-imposed bans are being circumvented and the practice has merely been into the shadows.

These sprinkles of money targeting a specific project in the home state or district are dropped into appropriations bills by a senator or representative. They are a form of “bringing home the bacon” about which at one time it could be said “everybody does it.” That’s changed somewhat because of projects like the Gravina Island “bridge to nowhere.” As a consequence of the flak the project received when it and many others were exposed as boondoggles, earmarks first got a full platter of public attention. But it didn’t generate the ban until, in 2010, there were a record number, 11,320, according to the Washington Post, totaling $ 32 billion.

And, despite reporting requirements in the House and Senate, some of those earmarks seem not only to benefit home districts but also the real estate and businesses of the elected politicians who have inserted them. That, at least, is what reporters David S. Fallis, Scott Higham and Kimberly Kindy discovered when they went poking around in various public records seeking to tie earmarked projects to the financial or other personal benefits those projects might have for those who got their funding into the appropriations bills. The reporters found $ 300 million in such earmarks by 33 senators and representatives, both Democrats and Republicans. You can see if someone you voted for or against is on the list here. Most certainly, those aren’t all the earmarks there are:

In recent weeks, lawmakers have acknowledged the public’s growing concern that they appeared to be using their positions to enrich themselves. In response, the Senate last week passed legislation that would require lawmakers to disclose mortgages for their residences. The bill, known as the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (Stock) Act, would also require lawmakers and executive branch officials to disclose securities trades of more than $ 1,000 every 30 days. At the same time, the Senate defeated an amendment, 59-40, that would have permanently outlawed earmarks. [...]

Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget, and the numbers uncovered by The Post are relatively small in the scheme of the overall Congress, but the behavior by lawmakers from both parties points to a larger issue at a time when confidence in Capitol Hill is at an all-time low. [...]

Mere proximity to a lawmaker’s property does not establish that an earmark was unwarranted. In some cases, the public benefit of the spending was large, improving life for thousands. In others, the benefit appeared narrower. In some cases, the work was within a mile or two of the properties; in others, it was directly in front of the lawmaker’s land.

The earmarked projects found by the reporting team included everything from the addition of a bike lane to a new bridge near the earmarking representative’s home to the replenishing of beach sand near to, but not on, the island property of the earmarking representative. One project revitalized a large commercial area that included a congressman’s own building. Another widened a road next to property a congressman’s family was developing. Disclosure rules did not require any of them, two Democrats and two Republicans, to reveal the connection of their earmarks to property they owned.

Explanations offered in interviews for these confluences of personal benefit with public money ranged from highly reasonable to ones in the uh-huh-oh-sure category.

Some percentage of earmarks have always been a form of, no other word will suffice, graft. Just as some percentage of politicians in high places have always been grifters. How big a percentage of each there is—10 percent? Twenty?—is anyone’s guess because, to some extent, corruption is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s graft is another’s essential benefit for the common good. Is a new bridge that improves traffic flow for thousands but happens to make it easier for a congressperson to get from his nearby house to a dog park unethical pork?

Earmarks aren’t evil in and of themselves. Many badly needed local projects can’t be built with local dollars and earmarks are what makes them happen. They also get boondoggles built. What to do? Can earmarks really be prohibited without some clever method of subterfuge being found to get past the ban? Should all of them be banned? Are enough of them so bad that all of them should be banned, the good ones too?

Whether earmarks are or aren’t permanently banned, one thing is clearly needed: stricter disclosure of the kinds of intersections of personal benefit and public money revealed by the Post‘s reporters. There is no way to control what senators and representatives are doing if we can’t see what they’re doing.




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