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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.)
While this short article doesn’t have everything about earmarks, it should be of interest to anyone who does reference work on Congress, particularly legislative histories and spending. It provides an interesting bit of history while describing some practial details and laying out some of the past and current polital battles over "congressional provisions directing that funds already authorized be spent on specific projects" (Wikipedia definition of political earmarks). Did you know, for example that some earmarks "are listed in the reports accompanying spending bills, rather than in the text of the laws themselves"? Or that "airdropping" is "the practice of including earmarks in spending bills after they have passed either the House or Senate"? Yikes!
- Congress Braces For Potential Anti-Earmark Executive Order, By Peter Cohn, National Journal’s CongressDaily, January 15, 2008 AM edition. [subscription required]
And, for those interested in current politics, it has insights into the current climate as Congress braces for a potential executive order by President Bush directing agencies to ignore spending earmarks:
"This is about more than earmarks; this is about moving decisions from Congress to the executive branch," one former senior congressional aide said. "I’m not sure what the strategy here is, maybe just an opportune time to grab power away from that meddlesome Congress. … It should be more than just appropriators that care about this."
See also: CongressLine by GalleryWatch.com: The Earmark Reality By Paul Jenks, September 28, 2007 LLRX.