Washington’s Dirty Little Secret – Earmarks are Still Alive

David Williams

February 7, 2012

On December 20, 2011 the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) uncovered $3 billion in earmarks in the Defense appropriations bill (see full list here).  Last week, legislation (S. 1930, The Earmark Elimination Act) sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) failed in the Senate.  Now, today, the Washington Post reports that, “Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation. Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.”  Even though most of the earmarks reported by the Washington Post were requested before the self-imposed moratorium in 2010, it shows a lack of understanding of how much taxpayers became frustrated with earmarks after the Bridge to Nowhere became a symbol of earmark largess in 2005.  Some analysts even believe that the Bridge to Nowhere and the increase in earmarks from 1995 to 2006 was a contributing factor to Republicans losing control of the House of Representatives in 2006.

The Washington Post article reminds us of the dark self-serving underbelly of Washington, D.C. and earmarks. “The Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members and compared them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008. The process uncovered appropriations for work in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by the lawmakers or their family members. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to companies, colleges or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.”

Earmarks have been the currency of Congress for many years as both parties have used earmarks to curry favor back home and used them to try and get re-elected.  Former members of Congress including Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) were sent to jail for accepting bribes to secure earmarks for friends and businesses.  Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff also spent time in jail for promising earmarks for clients.  Even though the notorious Bridge to Nowhere became a symbol of earmarks but history is full of wasteful examples of pork barrel politics such as:  $50,000,000 for an indoor rain forest in Iowa; $500,000 for a teapot museum; and $100,000 for the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Earmarking, has, and always will be a bi-partisan activity.  Two of the biggest earmarkers in the past have been Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and David Obey (D-Wisc.).

Members claim that earmarks are only a small percentage of the federal budget.  That may be true but the corruptive influence goes well beyond the financial implications.  Earmarks pit members of Congress, congressional districts, and states against each other in the mad dash to secure funding.  Because earmarks are not bid competitively, money is not awarded based on merit. Earmarks also transfer wealth from taxpayers to lobbyists and special interests that have access to Capitol Hill.  Most earmarks serve only a local, not national interest.  The $500,000 earmark for the Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina is a classic example.

Sadly, the defeat of S. 1930, The Earmark Elimination Act, reminds taxpayers that earmarks may someday become institutionally acceptable again in Congress.  The $3 billion in Defense earmarks uncovered by TPA in December may just be the calm before the next earmark storm.