Monday, December 6, 2010

My, what big earmarks you have . . .

"Earmark," in its Congressional sense, didn't get respectable as a term until 2009. That was the year it made the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as "A provision in congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program or organization."

Given the recent attempt in the Senate to ban earmarks entirely, I think it's safe to say they are a controversial practice. I mean, who doesn't remember the furor over Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, famously supported in 2008  by then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the same time her running mate, John McCain, was vigorously lambasting the practice?

Over the weekend, Tom Graham sent me a link to an editorial from, whose title is "Earmark system has its benefits."  (FYI, Virginia Senator Jim Webb voted against the ban; Virginia Senator Mark Warner, for it.)

The editorial makes some good points.

While bad earmarks get a lot of attention . . .is there such a thing as a good earmark?
It doesn't seem to be quite so black-and-white.
After all, even as members of Congress use earmarks to send money home, the projects the money pays for are often beneficial, creating jobs or infrastructure or protecting the environment.
For example, one of the earmarks Webb supported was for VRE trains and other equipment. Others were for mental health and substance-abuse programs, improvements to Interstate 95 and other roads, and to address water issues in Southwest Virginia. Webb and Warner both supported earmarks for the Dulles rail project, while both of the senators and several state congressmen all have supported earmarks for military and defense projects in Virginia.
Senator Webb makes the point (according to the editorial) that earmarks give elected officials a say in spending that would otherwise be controlled by non-elected officials.

So, is it earmarks that raise voters' ire, or simply their implied sneakiness, the lack of transparency in how they are created?

Well, if it's the seemingly opaque quality of the practice, more than the practice itself, that bugs you, Jock Friedly (pictured right) is your new best friend. He's the guy who (in 2006) launched LegiStorm , a website "dedicated to providing a variety of important information about the US Congress."

According to a 2009 article in The Washington Post about Friedly, LegiStorm . . .
 . . .offers a trove to keep the snoopiest snoop occupied for hours -- bank accounts, investment portfolios, trust funds, even information about spouses. Wondering why so-and-so cruises to work in a Beemer? Aha, that's why: His wife's a big-shot partner at a law firm. It's all there in the reports.
And LegiStorm also offers an extremely searchable database of all earmarks inserted into legislation by all members of Congress. 

It seems to me the choice re earmarks is clearer now: We can go ahead and take an uninformed stand for/against the practice of Congressional earmarks. Or we can spend some time poking around LegiStorm and see whose pockets in our state are being filled by whose earmarks.

Are the earmarks promoted by our own elected officials creating jobs? Addressing transportation problems? Or are they building expensive bridges we don't need just to make some rich bridge-building campaign contributors even richer?

And while we're at this, we can poke around other parts of LegiStorm and easily learn a whole bunch of other financial facts certain Senators and Representatives would just as soon we not know.

Thanks to the internet, and sites such as LegiStorm (and WikiLeaks?), the dirty laundry of our government doing its business is more and more visible for our personal viewing pleasure. It seems to me the ball is now squarely in the voter's court: If we don't know what's going on, it's probably because we haven't taken the time to look. If we do know what's going on, and we don't like it, what's stopping us from arming ourselves with all this available information and throwing the bums out of office?

Information is power. And there's a lot of both sitting right there in our computers!

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