Does The Washington Post's New Earmark Story Matter?

The Washington Post has a huge exposé on 33 members of Congress who directed earmarks to projects close to their homes, but it's hard to see how this latest "scandal" should surprise or outrage anyone. 

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The Washington Post has a huge exposé on 33 members of Congress who directed earmarks to projects close to their homes, but it's hard to see how this latest "scandal" should surprise or outrage anyone.

The earmarks laid out in the story were not directed specifically to projects or properties that were owned by members of Congress, but were for thinks like roads and parking garages that may have indirectly benefited the interests of the member who proposed them. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama helped the revitalization of Tuscaloosa neighborhood that happened to surrounded one of his businesses. Others had an impact that were less direct. For example, if you repave a road and someone owns a house on or near that road, the value of their property might increase slightly.

However, if you take that train of thought far enough, any project that goes to a Congressperson's district or state could benefit them financially. If a factory brings jobs, that makes the town a better place to live, which brings more people, which increases taxes and property values, and improves the economy for everyone. Even if they have zero financial benefit to the Congressperson, it might help them get re-elected. Which has its own benefits. That's whole idea behind earmarks.

It's true that some projects appear more dubious than others and may fell more like trading favors than helping constituents. Like Rep. Rubén Hinojosa of Texas, who secured a road project for his town, just as the city approved an application to subdivide his property ... which just happened to be next to the new road, which enabled him to sell part of the property. But just because the Congress member benefits personally, that doesn't means others don't benefit too ... perhaps even more than their patron. (Hinojosa's business actually went bankrupt after the road was built.)

What the post is really objecting to is the very concept of earmarks, which has been a major source of contention for Congressional critics for years, but doesn't appear to be going away. A report in The New York Times on Monday showed how, despite a temporary ban on the practice, Congress has had no problem funding its pet projects. The problem is actually worse than it was before, because now the methods are less transparent.

This latest story gives people yet another reason to hate Congress, but it's a problem for both parties and both houses (who follow two different sets of rules on earmarks.) Investigations and increased transparency help, but short of eliminating the practice altogether — which would require both houses of Congress to change rules against their own interests — bringing home the bacon will continue to be part of the job description.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.