Looking at Earmarks: Legislators for Sale?
Earmarks involve designating funds in spending legislation that must be used for a very particular purpose. While they can be a useful tool, they can also be a magnet for shady dealings and last-minute surprises. Indicted Naval ace and former Congressman Randy Cunningham’s [R-CA] activities revolved around earmarks, for instance. So, too, did the kerfuffle when Rep. Jack Murtha [D-PA] threatened a legislator who questioned his earmarks. Past US national defense budgets have included everything from renovations to Washington’s baseball stadium (based on the standings, a donation to hire players might have been better), to Utah watershed conservation, to the initial funding that got the war-defining Predator UAVs going. It’s a mixed bag.
The question is, how to separate the venal from the vital? One way is to see location patterns. The non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, in in collaboration with Taxpayers for Common Sense, recently gave people the ability to see earmark beneficiaries overlaid on a Google Earth map, linked to additional data concerning each one. Another is to see patterns of contributions from earmark beneficiaries. On the House Armed Services Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation found that just 3 lawmakers (chair Jim Moran [D-VA], FBI ABSCAM investigation target Rep. Jack Murtha [D-PA] and Rep. Pete Visclosky [D-IN] raised an average of $102,600 in campaign contributions in the first six months of 2007 from entities associated with firms they’ve favored with earmarks. The rest of the subcommittee have netted slightly more than $180,000 in total – or about $12,800 each on average, with some shining examples from both parties. The contrast is telling…
Rep. Murtha [D-PA], who narrowly avoided indictment during the 1980s for neither accepting nor refusing offered bribes from FBI ABSCAM investigators, topped both lists at $166 million in earmarks for 30 firms, and $113,050 in contributions from beneficiaries. Subcommittee chair Moran [D-VA] barely made the earmark top 10 with $41 million worth of earmarks to 27 firms, but he came second in political contributions from beneficiaries at $99,000. Rep. Visclosky [D-IN] received $95,000 from the 22 companies for whom he sponsored earmarks, to take third place.
Contrast with Rep. Jack Kingston [R-GA], who came in 5th for sponsored earmarks at $44 million for 12 companies, $3 million more than Rep. Moran. He received just $6,000 from those firms, their employees, and PACs affiliated with them. Rep. Nancy Kaptur [D-OH] also doled out $44 million in earmarks, but her 18 companies and their affiliates donated just $4,500 to her coffers.
Nor is the discrepancy just a matter of influence. Rep. David Obey [D-WI] is a very influential Washington figure, as head of the House Appropriations Committee, and he sponsored $50 million in defense-related earmarks. In return, his contributions from those beneficiaries and their affiliated sources amounted to just $2,000.
Read the full set of findings from the Sunlight Foundation.