Earmarks Good for U.S. Democracy, ‘Cheese Factories on the Moon’ Argues

BY Quinn Bowman  September 28, 2010 at 3:06 PM EDT

Earmarks are an oft-maligned process by which members of Congress can request that appropriated federal dollars be spent in a specific way, and that money often winds up spent in the district of the member making the request.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., continues to rail against earmarks after making his opposition to the process a theme of his presidential campaign. During a debate with McCain, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to go through earmark requests “line-by-line” to eliminate waste.

The conventional narrative is that earmarks are largely wasteful pork-barrel spending used by members of Congress to bribe constituents into re-electing them, but that notion is challenged strongly in a new book by California State University, Channel Islands professors Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly.

Senior correspondent Judy Woodruff spoke with Kelly about the book, “Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy”. Watch their conversation here:

The authors argue that earmarks have a trivial impact on spending, but are so maligned and misunderstood that they needed to write a book to better explain the process.

“We do not claim that all earmarks are wise uses of government dollars, nor do we assert that the earmark process is completely free of corruption,” the authors write. “However, on balance we believe that the current earmark process plays a useful role in the American system of government and is typically more open to public scrutiny than alternative methods of spending taxpayer dollars.”

The authors also argue that many earmarks are useful — the mapping of the human genome, for example, was made possible because of an earmark.