What Earmark Winners Tell us about Congress


A smart observation in an email puts the analysis that my colleagues Larry Makinson and Anupama Narayanswamy did on earmarks into sharper relief. They found that the top 20 corporate recipients of 2005 earmarks were all defense contractors, to which my correspondent responds:

The principal political science “justifications” for earmarking is that it enables elected representatives — rather than unelected bureaucrats — to allocate a small amount of scarce resources to small, useful, local projects that might get overlooked by the bureaucracy and about which the elected folks have superior, maybe exclusive knowledge and perception. How far away from that can you get when (1) the decisions are at the core of the national issue of “national” defense and the projects are part of a comprehensive, increasingly technologically driven interrelated military planning process, and (2) these get earmarked because tens if not hundreds of millions are spent obtaining these earmarks through highly paid lobbyists and related political contributions by the billion dollar beneficiaries of these earmarks.

Think about this: earmarks are handed out to firms that are already wildly successful at winning government contracts — the top four 2005 earmark recipients ranked #2, #3, #1 and #4, respectively, in terms of winning federal contract dollars in 2005. It appears that Congress is most interested in helping those who can already help themselves, and who also make a habit at helping members of Congress…