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Citizens Class: Fixing the System

How would you reform the American political system?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Fixing the System
An Earmark is a stipulation inserted into a bill by an individual member or members of Congress requiring that a portion of the funds provided through that legislation, rather than going into a general agency fund, must be spent on a particular project or given to a particular recipient. Earmark reform got a special mention in the President's State of the Union address and was, until recently, under scrutiny on the floor of Congress. In September 2006, The House of Representatives passed an internal rule that would require lawmakers to sign their names to some of the items they sponsor as special-interest provisions into major tax and spending bills. Critics say the reform doesn't go nearly far enough... [more]

Class Is in Session...
The Abramoff scandal has politicians and the public taking a hard look at the relationship between money and politics once again. Indeed, in his 2006 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush singled out a common part of the budget process for criticism-earmarks. "I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform," he told the country, "because the federal budget has too many special interest projects."

So what exactly are earmarks, and why are they causing so much trouble? Generally speaking, an earmark is a stipulation inserted into a bill by an individual member or members of Congress requiring that a portion of the funds provided through that legislation, rather than going into a general agency fund, must be spent on a particular project or given to a particular recipient. For example, as part of the 2005 Federal Transportation Equity Act, $223 million was earmarked specifically for the construction of a bridge in Alaska that would connect a town of 9,000 people to an island of 50-those funds could be used for nothing else. Taxpayers and a number of politicians complained that the appropriation seemed exorbitant given the number of people who would benefit, and eventually, after a bitter battle, the earmark was removed from the legislation.

But the bridge example points up some of the problems associated with earmarks, namely that they tie the hands of government agencies charged with determining what projects are necessary and allocating funds for those projects, and that they frequently award contracts that are not subject to competitive bidding, public hearing or review. In short, earmarking often allow lawmakers to bypass normal budgetary procedures in order to ensure that their pet projects receive funding. Naturally, this can lead to corruption, kickbacks and the like.

Most Americans are familiar with the phrase pork barrel politics-government spending that benefits the constituents of a politician in return for their political support. To be clear, not all earmarks qualify as pork barrel spending. Citizens Against Government Waste has been tracking pork barrel spending for the past 16 years; they distinguish pork barrel spending as line-item appropriations or earmarks that circumvent normal procedures for review. In other words, not every earmark is a pork barrel by their definition. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that earmarks have grown rapidly from 1,300 in 1994 to 14,000 last year.

Watch the video

However, the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and an investigation into West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan have raised questions about earmarks and the lack of oversight. Politicians and the public are concerned that earmarks, whether used as currency for re-election or as political favors to well-connected individuals or businesses, can corrupt the political process.


Earmarking has become so pervasive that it would be easy to assume that this is the way Congress has always worked. Garnering monies and projects for constituents is how legislators demonstrate that they are working on behalf of the people they represent-they are "bringing home the bacon." But earmarking did not become common practice until the 1980s. Throughout our early history, Congressional spending was limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution. President James Monroe foreshadowed the recent abuses of the earmark system when he argued that federal money should be limited to great national works only. "If [the use of federal money] were unlimited, it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil," he said.


Some critics of earmarks argue that federal tax dollars should not be used for local projects. An editorial in The Hill, the newspaper for and about Congress, stated that "[earmarks] also reveal congressional intrusion into nooks and crannies where every previous generation-not just the Founding Fathers-would have understood the federal government to have no proper business." (Read a editorial from THE HILL, September 6, 2006, )

But perhaps the greatest concern about earmarks is that they invite corruption. The Cunningham bribery scandal opens the question of whether there are other cases in which unscrupulous contractors have persuaded members to support earmarks, not based on what it might do for their Congressional districts, but what it could do for them personally. Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned from the House last year after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing Defense Department contracts.

Since earmarks are not subject to debate, many people are concerned that they can be used secretly as bargaining chips for personal gain or to reward campaign contributors. Lobbyists work to get earmarks slipped into appropriation bills on behalf of their clients. The client then returns the favor by contributing to the campaign of the member who secured the earmark. Staffers who have hopes of securing a high salary down the road as an appropriations lobbyist may also be tempted to push earmarks through on behalf of lobbyists. Remember this from the documentary? When Abramoff moved from one lobby company to another, he recruited seven former to aides to lawmakers who more than doubled their salaries.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks in appropriations bills alone more than tripled to 15,887 in 2005 from 4,155 in 1994 -- and most of them were shepherded by lobbyists. To those critical of the earmark process, earmarks are a currency of corruption.

Another concern frequently cited, is the lack of transparency in the process. Earmarks are individual efforts and are not subject to debate - a lobbyist may only have to convince only one legislator to move their case forward. Without scrutiny, there is no guarantee that the money is being spent wisely. Allocations of $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa and $1.4 million for various Halls of Fame including $70,000 for the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin are just a few examples of waste and abuse cited in the 2006 Pig Book.

But the unwise allocation of funding may be even subtler. For example, academic earmarks are rarely screened for quality. This may result divert money going to a member's pet project rather than the institution best suited to conduct the research. Several universities, including MIT and the University of Michigan (except for rare occasions), have resolved not to accept any funds which come for earmarks. Their reasoning - such projects are generally not peer reviewed and thus run counter to scientific and research policies. (Read the MIT and University of Michigan policies.)

Even more troubling to some is the lack of accountability. It is often difficult to determine who is responsible for inserting the earmark. In response, The Examiner newspapers joined with the Sunlight Foundation,, and Citizens Against Government Waste in posting the database of earmarks in the Labor-HHS appropriations and inviting readers to help identify the congressmen behind each earmark. They are calling on citizens to be part of an army of citizen journalists that will "shine some much-needed light on spending decisions made behind closed doors by powerful Members of Congress" by calling their Congressional representative and asking if they inserted the earmarks listed in their district.

Citizens Against Government Waste cited a additional concerns about earmarks and called for reform of the practice in a policy briefing, "All About Pork: The Abuse of Earmarks and the Needed Reforms" (Read the briefing.)

Earmark Reform Efforts

This backlash of the recent scandals encouraged several Members of Congress led to a frenzied 51 new pieces of legislation by early April 2006 designed to discourage some of these practices. The two pieces of legislation most often cited for their potential to make significant changes are the Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act of 2005 (S. 2128) and the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act (S. 2265).

The Pork-Barrel Reduction Act sponsored by Sen John McCain (R-AZ) requires that:

  • no new or general legislation nor any unauthorized appropriation may be included in any general appropriation bill;
  • no amendment may be received to any general appropriation bill that would add an unauthorized appropriation;
  • no new or general legislation nor any unauthorized appropriation, new matter, or non-germane matter may be included in any conference report on a general appropriation bill;
  • no unauthorized appropriation may be included in any amendment between the chambers in relation to a general appropriation bill.
The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act sponsored by Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) does the following:
  • Creates a database that names recipients and dollar amounts of most federal grants, contracts, and loans. These will be searchable online and available to the public.
  • Identifies so-called pork-barrel projects, or earmarks, in the searchable database. The database will not necessarily name lawmakers who added an earmark, but it will reveal the congressional district where the federal money will go.
  • Gives the White House Office of Management & Budget the job of managing the online database. (Read more about the database from THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR.)
The Heritage Foundation, a think tank that formulates and promotes conservative public policies, supports these two bills saying, "enactment of these two bills, would deter some of the more outrageous lobbying and legislative practices related to earmarks." Further they call for even tougher provisions including:
  • disclosure of family relationships,
  • disclosure of campaign contributions paid by a client or lobbyist to a Member's charitable affiliate, and
  • a reasonably precise definition of an earmark that would prevent the congressional abuses that transfer valuable public resources to other interests for reasons based solely on influence and privilege. (Read the Heritage Foundations' briefing.)
To check the status of these and other pieces of legislation, go to and enter the bill number.

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute about ways to combat earmark abuse and other ethics issues raised by the ties between money and power. Norman Ornstein advocates a greater oversight and visibilty for the process for a start. Both Washington observers think the problem runs far deeper than earmarks.

Watch the video Following the Money

According to THE WASHINGTON POST, "annual fees paid to registered lobbyists reached $2.1 billion in 2004...a 40 percent increase from 1999. For 2005, lobbying revenue is on pace to rise by at least $300 million." THE HILL reported in January 2006, that "PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks lobbying spending, reported this week that companies and other special interests spent $1.16 billion to lobby Congress and federal agencies during the first part of last year." It was a new six-month record for lobbying spending. [need to update this probably, but I can't get into politicalmoneyline database.]

Of course not everybody's earmark is everbody's waste. Use our collection of reference sites to track lobbying dollars, follow budget appropriations and priorities and make up your own mind.

Sources: "Clients' Rewards Keep K Street Lobbyists Thriving," Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, THE WASHINGTON POST, February 14, 2006; "Lawmakers Seeking Curbs on Special Spending Requests", THE NEW YORK TIMES CARL HULSE, February 8, 2006; "Hobbling the Lobbyists," THE ECONOMIST, January 26, 2006; Power Struggle Over Pork," THE HILL, Jonathan Allen, February 14, 2006; ""Match Point for Doctor No," THE ECONOMIST, January 19, 2006; MIT Office of Sponsored Programs; University of Michigan Research.


  • Should earmarking be allowed? What might be some of the benefits?

  • What process or guidelines should be in place to prevent the potential abuse of earmarking? How would you reform the earmarking process?

  • Go to: and look at the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations earmarks for your state. Do you see some recipients you know? Maybe you see organizations or causes you support. Would you be willing to support a ban on earmarks even if it means that your community's federal funds might decrease?


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You've got people on both sides actually, who are stalwarts in trying to stop this process from-- from moving forward. They've been in the minority. A lot of members don't want to get discomfort. They've lived kind of nicely the-- the way that things have been going. You know, I-- I would add, having been in Washington for 37 years, now I see a level of spending and conspicuous consumption that I just didn't see before. The fact is when you've got a three trillion dollar economy, and now you take 30, 40, $50 billion out of that, you know, chump change in a way-- and say to every member of Congress, you've got a few hundred million you can play with. You are the king over a few hundred million dollars.

BILL MOYERS: These are the earmarks?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The earmarks.

BILL MOYERS: Earmark, as I understand it, means that a congressman-- a member of Congress can direct that money be given, sent directly to a project without going through a public agency.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And without going through any kind of vetting or cost benefit analysis, in effect. And it's done through appropriations. It's done through authorizations. It's done through academic earmarking, getting money going to a particular university. It's also-- it's surreptitiously steering contracts, like defense contracts. That's what Randy "Duke" Cunningham did in return for $2.4 million in bribes.



NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are some reforms that would make a difference. Primarily, in this case, we need an Ethics Committee and an ethics process that has some outside involvement to-- have--

BILL MOYERS: So it's not members in Congress running.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: --not just members of Congress. The Constitution says they make the ultimate decision. But you've got to have some better vetting process. There are states like Florida and Kentucky that manage to do this reasonably effectively. We've got to change this earmarking process and bring some honesty to it. And we're far from being able to do that. And we've got to have--

BILL MOYERS: In other words, you could publicize who is sponsoring the earmark so that I would know Norman Ornstein has sent an earmark over to a campaign contribution.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And so that you can look into the behavior of individual members and staffers-- which may be related to those earmarks. And--

BILL MOYERS: But if reform has to come from the people who have benefited from the system, are we going to get reform?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We're going to get reform if and when they believe that the public will have the tar-- cooking and the feathers waiting if they don't do reform. We're not there yet, Bill.

THOMAS FRANK: Can I say two things about this question? First of all, the-- the people who are in charge now have a vested interest in increasing our cynicism. They are the party of cynicism against government.

And when they do these things, that's just an added benefit that they-- that they've managed to get the cynicism numbers up where they have, that's good for the Republican Party, the party that tells you that what? Remember what President Reagan used to say about government, you know? It was a joke, the idea that they were here to help you, all that stuff.

The second point I want to make is go back to the 19th century, the sort of parallel experience to what we're going through now. You had a series of reformers come up in the 19th century. And every single one of them from, you know, Horace Greeley all up to the 1890s failed miserably, you know, were rejected in huge sweep-- I mean, the corruptionists just whipped these guys.

It was a piece of cake. It was easy. The only thing that-- what really changed it is when reform became a broader thing, when it became-- progressivism. And when it became-- you know, look at society as a whole. We're going to change the-- the entire direction that we're moving in. When, I'm talking about here people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. That's when this stuff started to abate. Not-- not before that.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, one problem we have here is what we really need is politicians. Politicians understand the nature of politics and the importance of the institutions. How to do give and take and compromises in an effective fashion. What's happening now is where this flame of cynicism in the public, somebody pops up and says, "I'm not a politician."

And we say, "Okay, great. We'll elect you." And what we get are people who are on an ideological crusade, people who have a contempt for politics and believe that it is all sleaze, everybody does it. So bribery is a way of life.


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