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What is an earmark? Examining the pros and cons of the congressional provision

A congressional provision both relished and reviled that benefits lawmakers' constituents is making a comeback — the earmark. An earmark is congressional funding for a specific local project. As old as the nation itself, they have often been pet projects of powerful lawmakers, and sometimes the source of scandal. Lisa Desjardins explains.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congress may be on recess, but there's a long list of priorities on the agenda when they return to Washington.

    As Lisa Desjardins reports, there's something else making a comeback, too, the earmark, an object both relished and reviled that benefits constituents back home.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We start here, Ansonia, Connecticut.

    Mayor David Cassetti needs a new bridge. This outdated one is a literal roadblock to perhaps Ansonia's greatest asset, an abandoned copper and brass factory, 66 acres of rusting but prime real estate near major highways and waterways, a piece of history from a century ago, where now Ansonia sees its future.

  • David Cassetti:

    We want to build it back up to an economic engine, where we can have jobs for our community, as well as the surrounding communities, I mean, thousands of jobs.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A no-nonsense character, Cassetti helped muscle Ansonia's Main Street back to life after years as a near ghost town. But unemployment is still above the national average. Restaurants are hungry for more customers during the day, hoping for a new large employer.

  • Thomas Carney:

    Maybe Google or Amazon or some of the — you know, one of the big Internet companies.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, first, to get anyone to this potential business site, the city needs a stronger bridge, and millions of dollars to build it.

    Enter the congressional earmark. By definition, an earmark is congressional funding for a specific local project. As old as the nation itself, they have often been pet projects of powerful lawmakers and, at times, scandalous.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    An Ohio congressman agreed to plead guilty today to conspiracy and making false statements.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In 2006, Bob Ney pleaded to corruption, taking money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for earmarks for his clients. One year before, earmarks for defense contractors brought down Congressman Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to bribery.

    Some proposed earmarks, like Alaska's so-called bridge to nowhere, added to the fury.

  • John Boehner :

    The House has made clear in our rules that there will be no earmarks.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In 2011, Republicans running the House decided simply to stop using them. President Obama pushed Senate Democrats to do the same. Earmarks went on pause, until this year, when Congress decided to bring them back.

    Two House Democrats, Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro and Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio, are leading the effort to put them in spending bills before Congress now.

    Tell me, why bring back earmarks now?

  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.:

    You know, because I think what we're about here is the spending of federal dollars. And I don't believe that anyone knows better about what the issues are in a community than the member who represents that community.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's about who decides which parks, which roads and which local projects get federal funds. Right now, that's government agencies. Earmarks would give individual lawmakers some of that power.

    Now, earmarks amount to just a fraction of the federal budget. But, even so, billions of dollars are on the line. To shake earmarks' past, the Appropriations Committee has given them a new brand name, community project funding, and new rules.

    Each earmark request must be public. They are posted online, a sea change from years where this was all in secret. Each must show community support. And they cannot directly benefit for-profit companies.

  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro:

    We're all playing by the same rules. It's got to meet the guidelines. So, for me, I will follow the same guidelines as everyone else.

  • Tom Schatz:

    Transparency is better, but not bringing them back at all would have been the best decision.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste. He sees earmarks as a blight, feeding corruption and runaway spending.

  • Tom Schatz:

    There is nothing good about earmarks. It doesn't matter what the project is. The merits are not the issue.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Which is why 105 House members, mostly Republicans, are not requesting any, boycotting the idea, among them, freshman Byron Donalds.

  • Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla.:

    We don't have any money. Like, we are deficit-spending in Washington, D.C.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Donalds has stood his ground as more senior Republicans have told him that earmarks have a long history and can do good.

  • Rep. Byron Donalds:

    With all due respect to my colleagues who've been up there longer, I'm here now. And so my job isn't to look at what has always happened.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In truth, most controversial earmarks die on the vine. The bridge to nowhere was withdrawn. A proposed rain forest in Iowa never happened. Lawrence Welk Museum? No earmark.

    One of the few to make headlines and keep its funding was for this bearded iron statue in Alabama, Vulcan. The century-old symbol of the city's strength and skill was crumbling in 2001 and got a notorious $3.5 million earmark.

    But one person's boondoggle is another's joy. The statue, which turned 117 in May, and the park that blossomed around it are significant draws in Birmingham; 1,000 miles away, that is the dream in Ansonia, Connecticut.

  • David Cassetti:

    I want to bring it back to the heyday that it was, with a twist of the 21st century.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mayor Cassetti has a vision and luck.

  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro:

    I stood with Mayor Cassetti and Ansonia at the Ansonia Copper and Brass.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His congressmember is Rosa DeLauro, the Appropriations chair restarting earmarks, and Ansonia's new bridge is on her list. The Republican mayor defends this cross-party alliance.

  • David Cassetti:

    She knows that it's in need. I mean, we can't just let them sit idle like they have been for the last 20 years. Something needs to happen.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Multiply Ansonia's story by 5,000. That's how many projects have been requested as earmarks so far.

    While critics grit their teeth, lawmakers are now deciding not if, but which projects like this make it into spending bills.

    For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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