From the Farm to the Hill

February 9, 2009

If I ever hear the word “stimulus” again, I think I’m going to explode. Which is unfortunate, because I have a feeling the rest of the week will hold lots more research into who gets what, how much, in what section and in what version…it’s interesting, but repetitive. The good news is that I have something new to work on to distract me: appropriations!

Approps go by another, more infamous name: earmarks. Apparently the word originated in the late 1500s when farmers would cut distinctive notches into their animals’ ears to mark them as their property (according to the India Times, of all places).  The term evolved to mean “to set aside or designate something for a particular purpose or owner.” In the political sense, it refers to specific allocations for places or programs that politicians stick into giant appropriations or authorization bills. They’re great for the politician who gets money to go to his or her district, but bad for everybody else.

But for all the noise people make about the evils of earmarks and special interests, especially during the campaign season, the truth is that it’s not nearly as shady a process as you might think. Each Senator and Representative’s office has forms available to organizations that want to try and get federal money for a project. They have to submit detailed information on their organization and their plan, including a budget that describes exactly where the money would go.  If they employ a lobbyist, they usually have to say so on the form.  A lot of offices also only accept requests from nonprofits or cities.

The whole process seems innocent enough — more like applying for a grant than engaging in backhanded deals. (Although really, earmarks are a way of circumventing a merit-based process, so they’re trying to avoid applying for grants.) But when there’s a clear pattern of a Member of Congress routinely getting earmarks into appropriations bills for certain organizations, and then lo and behold, those organizations are that Member’s biggest donors, then it doesn’t seem so innocent anymore. I’m getting the sense that each appropriations request falls somewhere on a spectrum, somewhere between nonprofit children’s hospitals and clear corruption.

Here are some links so you can decide for yourself what belongs on the latter side of the scale:

The Office of Management and Budget is the official place to go to find records of earmarks, although its information is limited for previous years. has some good information on earmarks, as well as Members and the contributions they receive.

And Crew’s “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” list is totally extreme, but kind of fun. It’s also impressive that they managed to find such evil-looking photos of the people on their list.


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