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Earmarks: What, Where, and How

Earmarks have been making a lot of news lately, John McCain has enjoyed talking about them on the campaign trail and in debates in particular. Especially since the “Bridge to Nowhere” was also raised as a campaign issue as the McCain campaign brought up Gov. Sarah Palin’s rejection of the earmark as an example of her stand against status quo politics. (The Obama campaign has since countered that her opposition was not as total as the McCain campaign sought to imply.)

For those uninitiated to this new piece of political jargon, an earmark is in essence a line item in a budget bill that sets aside money for a specific project. Typically Senators and Representatives request projects that will have some positive impact on the district or state they represent, although this is not always the case. They are also known as “pet projects” or “pork barrel spending” or the colorful “boondoggle.”

From a government information perspective earmarks are a funny beast, Congresspeople historically rely on them for reelection, sending out mail to their constituency informing them of the 2,000 new jobs brought in by the defense contract landed by a local company or the $7,000,000 renovation to the local hospital. At the same time, lawmakers are spending taxpayer money on these earmarks, so they often don’t like being tagged with a line like “spent $4 billion dollars of taxpayer money on pet projects.” There have been new requirements in the last year or so about disclosure, but the lack of a clear definition makes getting a definitive listing of earmarks that people can agree upon a daunting task.

For these reasons and many others it is very difficult to get an accurate listing of earmarks from Congress. One organization with a great track record of digging up and recording federal earmarks is Taxpayers for Common Sense a non-partisan group that gathers the earmarks in the various spending bills and publishes them in Microsoft Excel files.

TCS does excellent work gathering this data, and it has enabled other projects such as EarmarkWatch, a joint project between Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers that was started last year as an experiment in giving citizens a way to see what federal money was being spent on and to research interesting connections between lawmakers and the companies they were rewarding contracts too. As a result of this data being available EarmarkWatch users have gone the extra mile and helped to visualize Earmarks on a Google map.

Another recent project worth mentioning is the Seattle Times’ The Favor Factory, a catalog of defense earmarks searchable by state, recipient, or Congressperson similar to EarmarkWatch.

The public attention earmarks have received is due in part to the information on a relatively technical part of the budget process being made more accessible. As a result of this publicity Earmark reform seems likely whichever candidate wins. McCain has made campaign pledges to eliminate earmark spending, and Obama has been forced to talk about them and offer up a moratorium. (The Seattle Times as part of Favor Factory has a good synopsis of where the candidates stand.)

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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