Earmarks are a subject that have garnered much attention in Washington, including in the 2008 presidential campaign.
The term "earmark" generally refers to a federal expenditure that is specifically directed to apply to a particular project or program, usually within the congressional district of the provision's author. In recent years, funding for earmarks has exploded to more than $18.3 billion in fiscal year 2008 alone. A significant portion of the lobbying industry in Washington is devoted to securing earmarks for clients.
Supporters of earmarks say that lawmakers are more accountable to their constituents than the federal bureaucracy and are in a unique position to know what their districts need. They point out that even sometimes controversial earmarks are ones that are popular with local constituents and are of proven need. Furthermore, they note that the amount spent on earmarks is a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget.
But criticism of earmarks has intensified as the volume of earmarking has grown. Critics point to the fact that most earmarked funds are directed and allocated without going through the competitive bidding process otherwise required for other government funding. They also point to a string of scandals, such as the Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) bribery prosecution, that suggest that the earmarking process is a corrupting influence on Washington. Some of those scandals have occurred because earmarks have mysteriously been added to bills at the last minute with no knowledge by the public or even of the vast majority of lawmakers who are required to vote on the bills.
The debate about earmarks spilled into the presidential campaign in 2008. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) emphasized that he was one of the few legislators who has renounced all earmarks while his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), requested $400 million in earmarks for fiscal year 2008. Meanwhile, McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, tried to capitalize on the earmarks issue by claiming that as governor, she had refused to accept funding for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." But then it was quickly revealed that she campaigned in support of the bridge funding and took the funds earmarked for the bridge but spent it on other state projects.
The scandals have led lawmakers to reform the process to provide more openness. The public outcry had grown so great that the Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which required disclosure of all earmarks and which lawmakers sponsored these controversial legislative provisions. This new disclosure has allowed us to provide the database in the form it is.
The data contained in our earmarks database has been generously provided by the Taxpayers for Common Sense, who researched, compiled and analyzed the original data. In many cases, Taxpayers for Common Sense was required to make judgment calls about what exactly constituted an earmark. The group found that $3.5 billion of the $18.3 billion total were earmarks that were never disclosed as such.
LegiStom is proud to integrate the data with our other data sets in order to bring deeper insight and increased transparency to congressional and executive spending. We anticipate adding the earmark spending data for FY09 after the budget process is complete. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy exploring where our tax dollars are spent and by whom.