Earmark forensics

Scott Tong Aug 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If you follow federal budget politics, you’ve heard about congressional earmarks. Pet spending projects for members and their districts. They’re one of the big ways taxpayer money gets spent. Catch is, the whole earmark process is anonymous. Secret, even. But there’s a new coalition trying to shine some light on it. And they want your help. From Washington, Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports.

SCOTT TONG: As critics see it, earmarks are legislative barnacles. They glom on to bills anonymously, with no debate on the merits. Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste says the new effort is to expose the politicians who do the attaching.

LESLIE PAIGE: This is sort of a spending whodunit, a CSI for spending, which is: Let’s find out whose fingerprints are all over these earmarks.

Her group and others have taken a current spending bill, listed the 1,800-plus earmarks, and put it into cyberspace. The hope is that the curious citizen will call his or her lawmaker and ask, Did you do this?

A woman named Zephyr Teachout of the Sunlight Foundation scrolls through the earmark list. Most items are worded very generally: A million dollars to this city for hospital equipment; A few grand there for school facilities.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Who’s against equipment? Who’s against facilities? Who’s against health? But if I’m a boss and somebody says, ‘Well, I’m going to spend some money on equipment,’ I’d fire them! What equipment? What does it do? How does it help the common good?

And, perhaps, is the equipment made by a campaign donor to the earmarker? Her point is, the entire process is opaque. The broader push to all this is to spark voter outrage and reform. Longtime budget analyst Stan Collender says good luck getting enough people to care.

STAN COLLENDER: And when the evening news is on opposite reruns of Seinfeld and other sitcoms, it’s difficult to get people to pay attention to something they don’t really think affects them directly.

A quick scan of the blogosphere finds a few folks have already contacted their representatives. Most have gotten no reply.

In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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