BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. You may have thought the best theatre in Washington this week was the confrontation between attorney general Gonzales and the Senate Judiciary Committee -- well it was a lulu: the attorney general saying he was going to clean up the mess that only months ago he denied existed, and Senators Leahy and Specter rubbing their eyes in disbelief. But on the very day that drama unfolded, there were also fireworks on the floor of the House that weren't to be missed.

Tempers flared, not over the constitution, executive privilege, immigration, or even the war in Iraq. Tempers flared over the most sacred ritual on Capitol Hill: slicing up the pork. I'm not making this up. Threaten to take away a member's funding for pet projects -- what we've come to call "earmarks" -- and you might as well have set off armageddon. It happened on Tuesday when one member tried to kill off an earmark of money sought by another member for a housing program for native Hawaiians. The offended congressman seemed almost to threaten fisticuffs. We're learning a lot more about earmarks because of the diligence and vigilance of some people you're about to meet. They call themselves Taxpayers for Common Sense. Look out Congress - there's a bird dog on your trail and he's trying to sniff out how you're spending our money.

STEVE ELLIS: Nobody wants to see their dollars wasted. Nobody. I don't care whether you're liberal or conservative. And if you show directly to people that their members of Congress are wasting their taxpayer dollars or worse, feathering their own nest, then that starts getting people's attention.

BILL MOYERS: Steve Ellis was once a sailor at sea -- a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. Now he works for the public interest group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STEVE ELLIS: Hi, Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STAFFER: Very nice to meet you.

STEVE ELLIS: Nice to meet you. I was here looking to see the earmark request letters.


STEVE ELLIS: And part of what we are trying to do is to get the populace to demand more. To demand their members of Congress to be accountable and to show them where their tax dollars are going.

STAFFER: A few rules that we do have are that you can’t photocopy them. You also may not take pictures of them.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever get the impression they're trying to make it hard for you to do your job?

STEVE ELLIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, essentially, information is power. Congress knows that. And they're trying to control the flow of information which then helps them maintain their power.

BILL MOYERS: For years, Ellis and his colleagues have been trying to pry open the secret of how Congress uses earmarks to pass out money. Think of earmarks as individual pipelines of public funds allowing members of congress to designate money for whatever purpose they choose, without hearings or oversight. For a long time they could do it anonymously. A single member could add a few words to a bill -- without attaching a name -- and bingo! Hundreds of millions of dollars go barreling down the pipeline to a waiting recipient. No debate, no scrutiny. And remember all that money flowing through those personal pipelines to favored causes is public money. Your money.

STEVE ELLIS: You could even have an earmark, for instance -- there was one in the Defense Authorization this year. Seven members of Congress requested ten additional C-17s, the big cargo aircraft, $2.4 billion, so it's a big-ticket item.

BILL MOYERS: That’s an earmark?

STEVE ELLIS: That's absolutely an earmark. It was not requested by the Pentagon. And the fact is, is that the members of Congress who requested it all had a local interest, a vested interest in it.

BILL MOYERS: And they've earmarked how much money?

STEVE ELLIS: $2.4 billion

BILL MOYERS: That the Pentagon didn't ask for?

STEVE ELLIS: Correct. I'm sure the Air Force would be happy to have 'em, but the Pentagon didn't ask for them.

BILL MOYERS: And they can do this without a hearing, without consulting with the Executive Branch?

STEVE ELLIS: Yeah, absolutely. Because they essentially work it out with the chairman and the ranking member of the committee, and they write it into the bill.

BILL MOYERS: One Senator calls earmarks the "trading currency" of Congress, used to entice members to vote for a bill they wouldn't otherwise support. If you back my earmark today, I'll back yours tomorrow.

BILL MOYERS: What's the rationale in a democratic society for seven members of Congress being able to dictate the amount of money going to build these airplanes that nobody wants except the people who are building them?

STEVE ELLIS: There isn't a good rationale. Now, what the members of Congress will argue is, is that, hey, they know better what their district needs than some bureaucrat in Washington, and so therefore they should be able to dictate where the funding goes, this way or that way. And that's been the argument now for years that we've heard.

BILL MOYERS: Lawmakers like to say the money is going to worthwhile local projects -- bridges, colleges, public agencies. But look at this analysis of the 2005 budget. It says most earmarks went to defense spending, taxpayer's dollars delivered without competitive bidding.

STEVE ELLIS: I mean, what we're having here is instead of having a process where we're picking projects for funding on the basis of actual merit, it's being done by political muscle. And so you have members of Congress who have either decided that this is their pet issue or they have campaign contributors who care about these, or other issues that are directing the funding to these particular projects.

BILL MOYERS: That's how earmarks travel -- one favor at a time. Example: Congressman Don Young is Alaska's only representative in the House. Alaska is thousands of miles from Florida. So what is he doing earmarking ten million dollars for this proposed I-75 interchange at Coconut Road, near Fort Myers, Florida? Ten million dollars from an Alaskan congressman for a highway project in Florida that the county there didn't even want. The Naples Daily News discovered that Young had earmarked the money shortly after receiving more than $40,000 in campaign contributions raised by a developer who owns 4,000 acres along Coconut Road. When The New York Times updated the story last month, Young dismissed it as old news, and he answered the reporter's questions with an obscene gesture. But for obscene gestures it's hard to beat "the bridge to nowhere." $223 million dollars earmarked for a bridge to a small local airport and fewer than 100 constituents living on an island in Alaska. Taxpayers for Common Sense dug up the story and turned it over to the press. The earmark had been the work of Alaska's representative Young (then head of the House Transportation Committee), and his colleague in the Senate, Ted Stevens (then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.) They figured they had the political clout to push their earmark through.

STEVE ELLIS: Then Katrina hit and people started realizing that federal spending has consequences. That if you don't spend the money wisely, if you spend it frivolously in places where you don't need it, you often don't spend it where you actually do -- like levees in New Orleans.

TOM COBURN: It is my understanding this amendment is going to be vigorously opposed, I understand, by the home State Senators.

BILL MOYERS: Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed using the money earmarked for "the bridge to nowhere" to repair a hurricane-damaged bridge in Louisiana.

TOM COBURN: This has nothing to do with my respect for them but has everything to do with my respect for our country and our desire to change the way we put our priorities on spending.

BILL MOYERS: The earmark for the bridge in Alaska was now the symbol of spending priorities grotesquely out of whack. But the message on the floor of the Senate was entirely different -- don't mess with the gentleman's pork.

TED STEVENS: This is not the time to start this process. I urge my friend from Oklahoma to reconsider this, reconsider what he is getting us into. The amendment may pass, but if it does the bill will never pass. If it does, I will be taken out of here on a stretcher.

BILL MOYERS: No one had to call 9-1-1. The move to shift the funds to Louisiana was turned down, although all the controversy put construction of the bridge on hold. Don Young is still shocked -- shocked! -- that anyone would think he wasn't acting in the noblest tradition of pork barrel politics.

DON YOUNG: I was not going to say anything, but when you referred to the bridge to nowhere as a scandal, when you voted for it four times, most of the people in this room voted for it four times. It was always transparent. I was always proud of my earmarks. I believe in earmarks, always have, as long as they are exposed. But don't you ever call that a scandal.

BILL MOYERS: OK, maybe not a scandal, but earmarks can sure lead you to, well, to jail.

RANDAL "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM: In my life I have had great joy and great sorrow, and now I know great shame.

BILL MOYERS: That's Randy "Duke" Cunningham, former Congressman Cunningham. He's now in jail for exchanging earmarks for bribes. Earmarks were also at the core of the crimes committed by the super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now prisoner number 27593-112 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. And earmarks are the common denominator behind a slew of federal investigations and ethics inquiries.

NANCY PELOSI: The Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.

BILL MOYERS: All that corruption contributed to Democrats winning control of Congress last November. Some Republicans don't want their party to forget what happened.

JEFF FLAKE: Mr. Speaker, I rise today out of concern for what earmarks are doing to this body.

BILL MOYERS: Conservative Republican Jeff Flake has long been a relentless foe of earmarks.

JEFF FLAKE: Those of us on the Republican side understand very well the political perils of this practice. Unfettered earmarking, and the corruption that accompanies it, was a major factor in putting us right where we are today: squarely in the minority.

BILL MOYERS: This summer Jeff Flake took on the man often called the king of earmarks: the powerful democrat, John Murtha. Murtha's district in Pennsylvania has blossomed with earmarks, and he keeps coming back for more.

JEFF FLAKE: This amendment would strike funding for the Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure. The center is to receive one million dollars in taxpayer funding in this bill. When searching on the Web, my staff and I were unable to find the center's website. I'm not sure whether the center currently exists or whether this earmark creates the center. I would appreciate if the sponsor of this earmark would clear that up.

PETE VISCLOSKY: It is my understanding that it will go to the Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure.

JEFF FLAKE: Does that center currently exist?

PETE VISCLOSKY: At this time, I do not know, but if it does not exist, the monies could not go to it.

BILL MOYERS: Flake also went after an earmark for The Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree, a project in Spruce Pine, NC. It was only for $129,000 dollars, but Steve Ellis says don't sneeze at an earmark just because it seems so trivial.

STEVE ELLIS: There's a lot of these small business incubators, and that's exactly what this is. It's a popular children's book called The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. The author is from Spruce Pine. And so they've now got a bunch of artists who make Christmas tree ornaments, plates, books, all sorts of stuff that are located there. But once you start talking about spending taxpayer dollars to try to encourage the business here you start losing sight of where our money should be going. And then essentially, why is this project in Spruce Pine better than a project in another town? In Ohio, or in Texas?

JEFF FLAKE: Perhaps the most frequent justification for the contemporary practice of earmarking is that, quote, "members of Congress know their districts better than some faceless bureaucrat in Washington." But, let's face it: when we approve congressional earmarks for indoor rainforests in Iowa or teapot museums in North Carolina, we make the most spendthrift faceless bureaucrat look frugal.

BILL MOYERS: In 1996 there were 300 earmarks attached to the Federal Budget. By 2006 there were 12,000. There are now -- get this -- 32,684 earmark requests up for approval in the House of Representatives.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the explosion?

STEVE ELLIS: It was a couple different factors that I would say you could look at it. One was Mikey Likes It. Originally Republicans had decried the Democrats' use of the purse. But once they got their hands on power they decided, "This isn't too bad. We maybe want to do a little bit more of this." And then, Speaker Gingrich, at the time, noticed that this was a good tool to help protect endangered incumbents. And that essentially they could direct earmarks to not just the politically powerful, which has been done before, but actually to those that are politically vulnerable to try to help keep them in office.

BILL MOYERS: Something else: lobbyists have swarmed to Washington in ever increasing numbers - more than doubling since the year 2000. But it's hard to know which comes first: the lobbyist or the largesse.

STEVE ELLIS: It's become a vicious cycle where you start getting more earmarks. Well, that's like chum in the water for lobbyists. And you get more lobbyists which are then pushing for more earmarks, which then gets more lobbyists. And so we've created this feedback loop that is essentially feeding this increasing number of earmarks in the parochial pork barrel spending. Every member of Congress walks around with a Blackberry now. Lobbyists and special interests had real-time communication with members of Congress and were able to push and notice whether they got their funding or not.

NANCY PELOSI: The House will come to order...

BILL MOYERS: When Democrat Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House in January, she put earmark reform on the agenda. She's called for cutting the number in half. And the House has now approved new rules: members must put their names on each earmark; they must disclose the beneficiary and purpose of the earmark; they must declare that they and their spouses have no financial stake in the project; and earmarks must be open for public inspection. But this transparency is still opaque. For one thing, the information is not posted on the Internet.

STEVE ELLIS: If you happen to be a constituent that lives in Peoria or in Texas or in California, you were gonna have to hop on a plane to get that information from your members of Congress.

BILL MOYERS: And that's not the only obstacle.

STEVE ELLIS: You can flip through the letters and see what the -- what people asked for. But you can't remove a copy of that or have any other copy of that. You can't make any photocopies. "But you can feel free to take notes. If you have any questions, I'll try to help." But you know --

BILL MOYERS: In each committee office -- the rules for accessing the information can be different.

STEVE ELLIS: You go to the transportation committee, another committee that also does earmarking, the committee that brought the bridge to nowhere, they just have a file box there. And you can just flip through the file folders by congressional district and look at the letters. But again, they sit there and watch you while you're doing it. And you can take some notes, but that's it.

BILL MOYERS: We were allowed to film when Steve Ellis called on the House Transportation Committee, but because exact copies of this public information are forbidden, we were required to blur the text. Only the House Appropriations Committee hands out copies of earmark requests attached to its bills.

KEITH ASHDOWN: We gotta be really supportive of the House at releasing these because the Senate's been awful in what they've done for disclosure.

BILL MOYERS: Undeterred, the team at Taxpayers for Common Sense keeps at it.

RYAN ALEXANDER: The undisclosed earmarks -- is there a lot in this bill?

STEVE ELLIS: We do the very sexy, glitzy thing of databasing all of these earmarks, actually putting them into an Excel spreadsheet where it makes it transparent to the public.

KEITH ASHDOWN: I like to call us forensic earmarkists where we go up there and we comb the public records and we get everything that we can on one lawmaker, and then we help reporters decipher that.

RYAN ALEXANDER: And this year, because there is this disclosure, we're doing these databases before the bills go to the floor, so that we can get that information up, you know, before the vote. We're not finding that the lists that they're providing are 100 percent complete, but it's certainly way more information than we've ever had before.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes they strike pay dirt. Ellis' colleague Erich Zimmermann helped The Los Angeles Times analyze the record of Representative Ken Calvert who was angling last year for a seat in the ear-marking factory known as the Appropriations Committee. Zimmermann spotted $5.6 million dollars earmarked for a transit center in Corona, California. When he looked closer, he found that the Congressman owns seven nearby commercial properties that stood to benefit.

ERICH ZIMMERMANN: Right here is where the Transit Center is gonna be built. And you can see some of these properties are actually very close to the Transit Center. The pins represent the properties that he owns. When we see a pattern where somebody's property so clearly surrounds a project it just raises questions. And we ask those questions of other people that may be interested in those questions as well and we try to get a sense is this abnormal? Is this normal? Is this increasing property values?

BILL MOYERS: Congressman Calvert appealed to the House Ethics Committee. The committee cleared him on the grounds that other nearby property owners stood to benefit too. In other words, the tortured ruling meant that if Calvert's neighbors gained from his earmark, so could he.

STEVE ELLIS: So, essentially, we would have to be having the taxpayer build a new bathroom in Representative Calvert's house for it to be determined to be actually an earmark that benefits him.

BILL MOYERS: But his is no isolated case. A few years ago, Taxpayers for Common Sense came across arcane language in one bill that referred to several million dollars to fund a provision in another bill passed by a previous Congress.

STEVE ELLIS: Well, what that happened to be was to do a dredging project on the Dog River in Mobile Alabama, which also happened to be in the back yard of Sonny Callahan, Republican Congressman, chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee which has got control over the Core of Engineers. And so, essentially, he was directing the Core of Engineers to dredge the river in his backyard, and so, we did a little more research. And lo and behold, there's even a memo within the corps and it says, "This is Congressman Callahan's personal initiative. The dot on the map below represents Congressman Callahan's residence in relation to the project. I mean, so this is a case of where a member of Congress was essentially hiding his tracks -- of getting funding for a project that was literally in his back yard.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes it's all in the open. Democrat Charles Rangel, of New York, has been upfront about wanting a $2 million dollar earmark for a center in Harlem to steer "low-income and minority students into politics." As chairman of the all-powerful House Ways and Means committee it should be easy. But he wants the center named after a prominent U.S. Congressman -- himself. And that doesn't sit well with some of his colleagues.

CONGRESSMEN CAMPBELL: And so, you don't agree with me, or see any problem with us, as members, sending taxpayer funds in the creation of things named after ourselves while we're still here.

CHARLES RANGEL: I would have a problem if you did it because I don't think that you've been around long enough that having your name on something to inspire a building like this in a school -- it might be that it would be in order for you to get publicity and to get reelected. But since I've been here 38 years and have not really had any opposition from the other side, it doesn't serve any function for me, except to try to encourage people to participate with government, local government, teachers, in order to keep our kids in school. So, I am proud of the fact that they're using my name in order to create this.

JEFF FLAKE: I just want to commend the Democrats. We always said that names should be placed next to the earmarks. This earmark is going beyond the spirit of the law. The name is on the earmark.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, Democrats do it too, and they'll be doing more of it now that they're the majority. In fact, of the 309 earmarks in the Defense Appropriations bill now being considered in the Senate four of the top five earmarkers are Democrats. That's just one committee in the Senate. Over in the House, remember, there are more than 32,000 earmarks to consider. And that has Chairman Dave Obey of the Appropriations Committee is pulling his hair out, frustrated by the process of vetting them.

DAVE OBEY: The reason I hate earmarks is because they suck everybody in. they suck them into the idea that we have to be ATM machines for our districts, and so they focus on the tiny portion of most bills that are earmarks instead of focusing on the policy that is represented by the legislation that we produce.

BILL MOYERS: On this issue Democrat Obey and Republican Flake find themselves on the same side. It seems to be the losing side.

DAVE OBEY: But let me ask the gentleman one question. The gentleman has offered a lot of motions in the past 2 years to strike earmarks. Could I ask him how many of them have been successful?

JEFF FLAKE: Not one. I came to the floor 39 times and was beated like a rented mule every time.

BILL MOYERS: So Steve Ellis and the self-proclaimed geeks at Tax Payers for Common Sense, their work is never done. Another day, another hunt. Do you have to be a geek to do this?

STEVE ELLIS: You have to have -- I guess so. I mean, you certainly have to have a passion. And I think even more importantly than being a geek is actually being committed to democracy. To actually deciding that you want to have transparency in government because you really believe what the Constitution said about a government for the people and by the people. And the best way to do that is to let people know where their dollars are being spent.

JEFF FLAKE: The truth is, we can try all we want to conjure up some sort of noble pedigree for the contemporary practice of earmarking, but we are just drinking our own bathwater if we think the public is buying it. It seems that over the past few years we've tried to increase the number of earmarks enough so that the plaudits we hear from earmark recipients will drown out the voices of taxpayers all over the country who have had enough. It hasn't worked, thank goodness. For every group that directly benefits from earmarks, there are hundreds who see it as a transparent gimmick to assure our own reelection.

BILL MOYERS: But now, at last, Congressman Flake can claim an earmark victory - his very first. Out of those thousands and thousands of requests this year, he has persuaded his colleagues to kill one -- The Perfect Christmas Tree project -- saving taxpayers $129,000 dollars. Speaking of Christmas, you can't blame Don Young and Ted Stevens for thinking Santa Claus has come early. For all the controversy it now looks as if Alaska is free to use the $223 million dollars for the bridge to nowhere.

STEVE ELLIS: As one grizzled lobbyist told me when I first started doing this work in Washington, you have to kill, kill, kill until it's dead, dead, dead. And so, it's not quite dead, dead, dead yet, but we're still watching.

Bill Moyers Essay: Earmark Reform

July 27, 2007

Do you know where your tax dollars are going? How about to build 10 multi-million-dollar military cargo planes that the Pentagon hasn’t asked for? What about to fund the “Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree” in Spruce Pine, North Carolina?

These congressional pet projects, sometimes referred to as pork barrel spending, are these days more commonly called earmarks. They are provisions inserted into bills that allocate funds directly to colleges, local agencies, or private businesses, without public hearing or oversight.

And since so many recent scandals and ethics inquiries have surfaced that revolve around congressional favors and earmarks, the Jack Abramoff affair perhaps the most infamous and widespread, many watchdog groups have been reading the fine print and publishing earmark information so taxpayers can see exactly how their representatives are spending their money.

Track Your Reps

Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers for Common Sense is a congressional watchdog group that creates a database for all earmarks as soon as bill is introduced. The group then analyzes the information, paying particular attention to signs of earmark abuse.

Sunlight Foundation
On the website for the group you will find a number of tools developed to make Congress a more transparent entity for American citizens. Among their projects: an interactive Earmark Map which lets you track such appropriations by zip code! And, Congresspedia, “the citizen’s encyclopedia on Congress that anyone including you can edit.”

Recent Reforms

Responding to exit polls from the 2006 midterm elections, where U.S. voters named “corruption” one of the biggest factors in their ballot-casting, Speaker Pelosi helped to push through various ethics reforms, vowing to cut earmarks in half, and forcing representatives to put their names on earmarks, defend their purposes, and declare that they and their spouses have no financial stake in each project.

“Because there is this disclosure, we’re doing these databases before the bills go to the floor,” explains Ryan Alexander, President of TCS. “We’re not finding that the lists that they’re providing are 100 percent complete, but it’s certainly way more information than we’ve ever had before.”

On the forefront of the battle against earmarks in Congress is Representative Jeff Flake (R – Ariz.), who recently challenged veteran Democrat Jack Murtha, after he inserted a $1 million earmark to fund an organization that Flake believed may or may not even exist.

“When we approve congressional earmarks for indoor rainforests in Iowa or teapot museums in North Carolina, we make the most spendthrift faceless bureaucrat look frugal,” remarked Rep. Flake in a recent speech on the House floor.

Flake was able to declare his first victory against earmarks recently, persuading his colleagues to kill “The Perfect Christmas Tree Project,” saving taxpayers $129,000.

  • submit to reddit