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July 27, 2007

Do you know where your tax dollars are going? How about to build 10 multi-million-dollar military cargo planes that the Pentagon hasn't asked for? What about to fund the "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" in Spruce Pine, North Carolina?

These congressional pet projects, sometimes referred to as pork-barrel spending, are these days more commonly called earmarks. They are provisions inserted into bills that allocate funds directly to colleges, local agencies, or private businesses, without public hearing or oversight.

And since so many recent scandals and ethics inquiries have surfaced that revolve around congressional favors and earmarks, the Jack Abramoff affair perhaps the most infamous and widespread, many watchdog groups have been reading the fine print and publishing earmark information so taxpayers can see exactly how their representatives are spending their money.

Track Your Reps:

Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers for Common Sense is a congressional watchdog group that creates a database for all earmarks as soon as bill is introduced. The group then analyzes the information, paying particular attention to signs of earmark abuse.

Sunlight Foundation
On the Web site for the group you will find a number of tools developed to make Congress a more transparent entity for American citizens. Among their projects: an interactive Earmark Map which lets you track such appropriations by zip code! And, Congresspedia, "the citizen's encyclopedia on Congress that anyone including you can edit.

>more tracking tools below

Recent Reforms:

Responding to exit polls from the 2006 midterm elections, where U.S. voters named "corruption" one of the biggest factors in their ballot-casting, Speaker Pelosi helped to push through various ethics reforms, vowing to cut earmarks in half, and forcing representatives to put their names on earmarks, defend their purposes, and declare that they and their spouses have no financial stake in each project.

"Because there is this disclosure, we're doing these databases before the bills go to the floor," explains Ryan Alexander, President of TCS. "We're not finding that the lists that they're providing are 100 percent complete, but it's certainly way more information than we've ever had before."

On the forefront of the battle against earmarks in Congress is Representative Jeff Flake (R - AZ), who recently challenged veteran Democrat Jack Murtha, after he inserted a $1 million earmark to fund an organization that Flake believed may or may not even exist.

"When we approve congressional earmarks for indoor rainforests in Iowa or teapot museums in North Carolina, we make the most spendthrift faceless bureaucrat look frugal," remarked Rep. Flake in a recent speech on the House floor.

Flake was able to declare his first victory against earmarks recently, persuading his colleagues to kill "The Perfect Christmas Tree Project," saving taxpayers $129,000.
Watch CAPITOL CRIMES, Bill Moyers' and Sherry Jones' recent investigation into the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Watch CLEANING HOUSE, a recent BILL MOYERS JOURNAL report about congressional Ethics.
References and Reading:
How to Track Your Reps, Continued:
Maplight is developing an database which combines all campaign contributions to U.S. legislators with legislators votes on every bill, using official records from the Library of Congress Web site and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Visitors to the developing site can track how much the pharmaceutical industry contributed to each Senator voting Yes, and voting No, on an amendment to prohibit consumers from buying prescription drugs from abroad.
This is a Sunlight Foundation sponsored group, which centralizes official government data with news and blog coverage regarding members of Congress. researches every US senators voting patterns and scores them based on how active they were in attempting to curb earmarks. See how your senator ranks up at the PorkBusters Scorecard.
A comprehensive guide to money in politics at the state level. Find out how much candidates are collecting in campaign contributions and from which organizations.

Citizens Against Government Waste
This group produces numerous publications highlighting wasteful government spending, as well as features action alerts that inform the public about earmark abuses.

More on Earmarks:

Office of Management and Budget
The OMB Web site offers a basic primer on earmarks as well as a limited database, listing earmarks by department. According to the site: "This database provides more information on earmarks in one place than has ever been available through the Federal Government. It is part of an effort to bring greater accountability to federal spending. This step is also consistent with changes in the House Rules and Senate legislation during the 110th Congress, which requires more disclosure for earmarks."

The Congressional Pig Book
Citizens Against Government Waste's Congressional Pig Book is an annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. They have kept a record of government wastes, pork-barrel spending, and earmarks since 1991, and each year's report can be found on their Web site.

Just Say No to Earmarks
by Senator Tom Coburn, WALL STREET JOURNAL, February 10, 2006
"John McCain and I recently delivered a letter to our colleagues announcing our intention to challenge every individual earmark on the floor of the Senate. Many senators, staff and reporters have asked if we are serious. The answer is yes."

Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest
Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI) promotes, supports and protects 501(c)(3) nonprofit advocacy and lobbying in order to strengthen participation in our democratic society and advance charitable missions. The Web site contains information on effective lobbying procedures.

Americans for Prosperity
"Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP Foundation) are committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process."

More on congressional Ethics:

The Center for Public Integrity
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization that conducts investigative research and reporting on public policy issues in the United States and around the world. They post commentaries, list news stories of interest, and distribute the "Public i" newsletter. The Center maintains extensive online research projects including LobbyWatch, and PowerTrips, an investigation into congressional travel.

The Center for Responsive Politics
The Center for Responsive Politics is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy. The site contains comprehensive databases on 527s, PACS and breakdown of dollars by representative, major donors, donors by industry, and many others.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC)
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is an agency created to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1975 (FECA), the statute that regulates the financing of federal elections in the United States. It has jurisdiction over all subsequent campaign finance regulation. The Web site contains a searchable database of all campaign finance filings and a guide to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2004.

Public Citizen
Public Citizen is a national nonprofit public interest organization "protecting health, safety, and democracy." Their Lobbyinginfo Web site features a report on Congressmen who retired to K Street (PDF) and offers a searchable database of lobbyists and their employments histories.

House of Representatives Committee on Rules
United States Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
Senate Lobbying Rules
House of Representatives Lobbying and Public Disclosure Rules
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