Connecting Congressional Earmarks with Campaign Contributions: An Investigative Reporter Creates a Database of Earmarks Revealing the Relationship between Wasteful Spending and Political Favors

By Heath, David | Nieman Reports, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Connecting Congressional Earmarks with Campaign Contributions: An Investigative Reporter Creates a Database of Earmarks Revealing the Relationship between Wasteful Spending and Political Favors


Heath, David, Nieman Reports


As an investigative reporter, I'm accustomed to digging up information that s been deliberately buried. But I underestimated the archeological excavation it would take to unearth details from a public document. Not just a public document, but a law passed by Congress and signed by the President, and one having to do with how the dollars spent on our nation's defense are being allocated during a time when two wars are being waged.

I was looking for ear-marks (1)--pet projects lawmakers insert into spending bills, usually as favors for particular constituencies in their district or state. What I wanted to examine was whether the people and companies benefiting from these military-related earmarks had donated to the campaign of the person who had inserted their request in the legislation. In other words, I wanted to investigate whether members of Congress were reaping campaign dollars in return for their generosity in doling out tax dollars.

It's a simple question, and naively I thought getting the answer would be relatively easy. But I'm an outsider to Washington, D.C., and it turned out that my reporting on this story taught me a surprising lesson about Capitol Hill. While Congress might be a cornerstone of American democracy, it is the most secretive public body I'd ever covered.

The only real public documents on Capitol Hill come in the form of press releases. In recent years, it's become a common practice--among at least half of the lawmakers--to tout how they successfully added earmarks to pieces of legislation and thereby garnered mostly favorable stories from their hometown press. So it was to these press releases I was ultimately forced to turn, given that the actual documents in Congress--the kind I routinely am able to get from local and state governmental bodies--are secret. Though lawmakers passed the Freedom of Information Act to deal with such abuses of power in the wake of Watergate, the law covers only the executive branch. Congress made itself exempt.

Searching for Earmarks

I tried to plum the few documents that Congress does make public. At first, I felt pretty confident that they'd lead me to some answers. After all, while lawmakers control the purse strings, they do so through a legislative process. Earmarks have to be put in bills to become law. Surely, Congress can't hide what is actually printed and even embossed in a public law.

As I started to read the 2007 defense appropriations bill, I found a few earmarks. I knew there had to be more. The Congressional Research Service had counted 16,000 earmarks among several appropriations bills in 2005, at a total cost of $52 billion. Where were the hundreds of earmarks I'd expected to find in this year's defense department bill?

Fortunately, I stumbled across an article written by former Senate aide Winslow Wheeler. It offered a detailed guide to finding earmarks, and after reading it I gave Wheeler a call at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank where he now works. Earmarks aren't actually in the law, he explained to me. They're buried in the "joint explanatory statement," a report intended to explain how the Senate and House resolved their differences on a particular bill. Wording in legislation tends to be carefully crafted to withstand scrutiny from the courts, but not so with the explanatory statement, an informal document that doesn't carry the same legal burden.

It turns out that lawmakers slipped nearly 2,700 earmarks, costing nearly $12 billion, into the 382-page report that accompanied the defense appropriations bill. These earmarks were not easy to read, and I mean this literally. Congressional staffers had converted the text of the earmarks to images and shrunk the type down to a tiny 1/20 of an inch, making them illegible to my farsighted eyes and impossible to copy and paste. Even worse, the descriptions were so brief and cryptic as to resemble a secret code. …

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Connecting Congressional Earmarks with Campaign Contributions: An Investigative Reporter Creates a Database of Earmarks Revealing the Relationship between Wasteful Spending and Political Favors
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