No Honor Among Thieves

Conn Carroll /

Defenders of earmarks often insist that it is their “constitutional duty” to steer as many federal dollars to their districts as possible (never mind that Congress waited 200 years before earmarking at the extremely high levels it does today). As more and more congressmen are directing more and more money directly to their districts, they are finding there are simply no rules for federal agencies to follow when dispensing these funds. The New York Times reports on Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) efforts to track down a $1 million earmark he sent to the University of Nebraska:

The Department of Defense, the agency controlling the money, was withholding 12 percent of the total to oversee the project. … Mr. Nelson …. later found out that the Department of Agriculture had also withheld about 10 percent of a $222,000 earmark to the university for drought research.

Congress mandated more than 11,000 earmarks to pet projects costing nearly $20 billion this year. It is common for federal agencies to take part of the money from each earmark for administrative costs and other expenses. That, Mr. Nelson concedes, is acceptable. But according to a Congressional Research Service study that he ordered, the federal government has no umbrella legal authority that allows agencies to take a cut of each earmark, and it has no overall standard for how much agencies should take.

The irony here is rich. Nelson worked hard to subvert the system so that federal agencies were forced to spend money on projects the agencies never intended to spend money on in the first place. The agencies then returned the favor by skimming some of the earmarked money off the top.