In 2011, 33 members of Congress sent more than $300 million toward such projects, according to a recent Washington Post investigation.
On Wednesday, Post reporters David Fallis, Scott Higham and Kimberly Kindy held a Congress and earmarks live chat with readers to answer questions about Congress, earmarks and what this information means for your district.
Readers wanted to know if these earmarks were illegal — answer: no — and what makes this practice bad. This brought up an important distinction.
“We did not label an earmark as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” Kindy said. “The stories point out flaws in the financial disclosure system. It should be very easy for voters to determine whether an earmark is by a lawmakers’ property or if an earmark went to an organization where a relative works. It is not.”
But there was still concern from at least one reader that the investigation was misleading, painting earmarking practice with a broad brush.
Once again, the reporters called on readers to use the information to make up their own minds.
“I don’t feel we were misleading in the slightest — we took great care to point out that proximity to a property does not mean an earmark is unwarranted and we explained the rationale given for the earmarks that we wrote about,” Fallis said. “I think it is up to the readers to decide if the money is well spent or not. More broadly, the point of the story was not to suggest that earmarks = corruption; it was to shine a light on the lack of transparency in the process and the permissive culture under current ethics rules.
“All of this is permitted under the way the rules are written now,” he added. “And there is no way to know if an earmark might align with the interest of a lawmaker because there is no rule that requires them to disclose that.”
Not everyone was against earmarking. One reader said, “I want my members of Congress to do this for my district and state. And if it hurts other states, then too bad.”
Surely, this reader is not alone.
“I understand that sentiment -- many jurisdictions and constituents would love to be represented by a member with the clout and power to secure large amounts of funding for their districts,” Fallis responded. “Again, the point of the project is not to suggest that earmarks in and of themselves are bad. The point is the complete lack of transparency about the alignment of interest. In none of the cases we looked [at] did the member openly disclose (in press releases or their requests for the funding) that he or she had property in proximity of the earmark they secured.”
Finally, one reader was fed up with earmarks altogether. “I thought that when Obama took office he was putting a stop to earmarks or at least trimming down because it was clear they were all self serving,” the reader wrote. “What happened?”
“By definition, earmarks subvert the presidential budget process, and it’s one of the reasons why the White House Office of Management and Budget created a Web site, so the public can take a look at these spending measures,” Higham said. “Presidents of both parties have long been frustrated by congressional earmarks and there has been little they can do aside from publicizing the spending measures. It’s a revealing site, and it’s searchable by lawmaker and project.”
For a more extensive discussion of the article, check out the full Q&A transcript.