Harnessing the web to expose earmarks

Earmarks are the lifeblood of Washington, providing an avenue for Congress to bypass the executive branch and designate specific blocks of money to go to specific programs or contractors. They are also, as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) calls them, the "currency of corruption." Earmarks given to defense contractors in exchange for bribes were what brought down now-former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and are creating a mess of trouble for Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and several other members of Congress.

Beyond corruption, earmarks often take the form of "pork," the taxpayer-funded largess that members of Congress snag to show their constituents how effective they are at bringing home the bacon (a major plank in the primary platform of Sen. Joe Lieberman).

In short, earmarks often aggravate a lot of people of varied political bents, from deficit hawks to citizen muckrakers. However, finding out where the earmarks are actually going has been a historically difficult task—until now.

The Sunlight Foundation, which co-operates Congresspedia with the Center for Media and Democracy, has just developed a group of fancy tools that slice and dice the 2007 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to show you who exactly is getting the 1,800 earmarks in that bill. They are enlisting citizen journalists to help them expose the outrageous and the scurrilous in the bill.

The coolest of the tools is a mash-up of Google maps and the earmarks database that shows where the earmarks are going graphically. Various citizen journalists (including Room8, for you New Yorkers) have already used it to find a few interesting items:

  • $150,000 for rural healthcare in Alaska—to a company in Florida;
  • $400,000 to a vocational school in Brooklyn with a total enrollment of 34; and
  • $275,000 for the automobile industry in Alexandria, Viginia (which has not automobile industry, as far as I'm aware).

The project is already getting props from the likes of Jay Rosen, who calls it

"A key moment in the evolution of the Web as a reporting medium. The first left-right-center coalition of bloggers, activists, non-profits, citizens and journalists to investigate a story of national import: Congressional earmarks and those who sponsor and benefit from them;"

and Craigslist's Craig Newmark, who says

"This has significance beyond exposing a little corruption, it's a next step in a process where professional and citizen journalists work together to expose bad guys."

So, citizen journalists, have at it! While one person's earmarks are another person's sensible spending, there's bound to be some low-hanging fruit in the absurdity department in the bill. Best of all, if you find something good and can confirm that it came from a particular member of Congress, go to their Congresspedia profile and add it to their permanent record.

One final note: while Congress does not currently disclose who ordered what earmark, that could change if a bill to reform the earmark process gets through the House this year. If you'd like to know more about earmarks and efforts to reform them, check out the Sunlight Foundation's archive of posts on the subject.