Earmarks 101: All Pork Is a Local Story

April 23, 2008

In every Congressional district - including yours - there are dozens of "pork barrel" politics stories. Even the best often go uncovered. This is partly because Congress has historically made the "earmarks" in legislation hard to find and see - at least until the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Finding "earmarks" setting aside money in appropriations and other federal legislation is becoming a bit easier thanks to a number of nonprofit groups who are using computers and hard work to track them. Using their online tools makes it possible even for reporters outside the Beltway to cover Washington like coon dogs.

Make no mistake. One Senator's pork is another's constituent service. What one group sees as waste and corruption, another group may see as the currency of representative democracy. Like most other politics, pork barrel politics is all about the management of perceptions. TheWatchDog can not help you with this - only with access to information.

Environmental pork may or may not be less harmful than other kinds of pork. But a look at each year's appropriation bill for Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies will show environmental reporters that it is plentiful.

"Earmark reform" has itself become a partisan judo match with uncertain meaning and results. Whatever their motives, proposals to clearly label each bit of pork passed by Congress have not been successful - yet. But journalists may hope.

In the meantime, the WatchDog offers some highly imperfect resources for finding and understanding the pork that may be news on your beat or in your locality:

  • Sunlight Foundation project: Earmark Watch. This collaborative "Wiki-style" database is currently limited to what volunteers put into it - a fraction of what is there.
  • Taxpayers for Common Sense: Earmark Database. This nonpartisan, antiwaste group spends time populating its earmark database, presenting it in downloadable spreadsheets in a fairly timely way.
  • Environmental Working Group: Farm Subsidies Databases. EWG, known to most environmental reporters, has an environmentalist agenda, excels at computer-assisted reporting, and is engaged on farm-subsidy issues relevant to the currently stuck Farm Bill.
  • Porkbusters. Quirky, to say the least, Porkbusters is run by two bloggers and draws from both left- and right-wing groups. Not a database, its aggressive blog/forum approach offers a good window on current earmark issues.
  • "Earmarks in 2006 Appropriations Acts," Congressional Research Service, March 6, 2006. If anybody knows Congress, CRS does. This nonpartisan overview helps in understanding earmarks.
  • Citizens Against Government Waste. Said to have been founded in 1984 by Jack Anderson, this group has been accused in more recent years of fronting for corporate interests. Its "Pig Book," whose selectiveness provides opportunity for mischief, is nonetheless good reading.
  • White House Office of Management and Budget: Earmarks Database. OMB rails against earmarks for partisan reasons and certainly has the resources to compile a useful database. What it offers does not always seem useful or even complete. It is not geographically searchable.

And if you are writing about government spending, it is good to remember two other online resources which can help you research grants, contracts, and other awards.

  • OMB Watch's FedSpending.org. A very useful database designed to show OMB how to do something that Congress ordered it to do.
  • The Federal Procurement Data System. A searchable database of federal grants and contracts which has significant limitations.