As correspondent Morley Safer reports, past examples include the $223 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, which almost got approved, and half a million for a teapot museum in North Carolina, which did.
This story is about one congressman's mission to end earmarks that has pitted him against the House, in particular against members of his own party.
"Everyone bears some blame here but Republicans are going to be blamed disproportionately. And then I have to say we deserve it, because we've been in charge," says Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Arizona.
On weekends at his home outside Phoenix, you can find him on the trampoline with his kids. But back in Washington, you'll find him on the floor of the House, trying to bounce some earmarks out of the federal budget, but with much less success.
"This process of challenging earmarks on the floor is often described as tilting at windmills, so I suppose it is only proper that we start today with an earmark for the wind demonstration project," Flake says on the floor of the House.
Rep. Flake is challenging $6 million for windmills to generate power on military bases, $500,000 for a swimming pool in Banning, Calif., $1 million to promote tourism in Kentucky, $750,000 for a new building at the Los Angeles County Fair, $1.5 million for a William Faulkner Museum in Mississippi. And he challenges a particularly mysterious item: $600,000 for the Center of End of Life Electronics in West Virginia.
It sounds like something that might have something to do with either euthanasia or capital punishment and it was a mystery to the congressman as well: "We had a hard time. We thought it was computers for seniors. It wasn't. It was basically mining the parts that are still usable out of old computers," Rep. Flake explains.
In essence, the center would recycle parts.
As they work their way through Congress, earmarks are so shrouded in secrecy you often can't tell who benefits from them, who sponsors them, or why.
"The vast majority of them we have no idea. Sometimes you'll see a press release when somebody's taking a victory lap. Some of them don't want anyone to know ever that they got that earmark, other than the lobbyist that they got it for," Flake tells Safer.
It's a process the Founding Fathers warned us about from the very beginning.
"Jefferson actually was very prescient about it and said it was gonna be a mad scramble to see who can waste the most money in their state," explains Leslie Paige, who studies the workings of Congress for the non-partisan group Citizens Against Government Waste. For lawmakers, she says, earmarks serve another function: you show me yours, I'll show you mine.
"You want me to vote for your Medicare bill? What do you want for it? You know? And that actually has happened, where there's been a lot of log rolling and horse trading to get bills through that they can't get through any other way," she explains.
On the floor of the House, Jeff Flake has managed to smoke out the authors of a few earmarks. But as you might expect, his efforts have gotten him in trouble with just about everybody.
"Doggone it, I'm not gonna let somebody stand up here in total and complete ignorance and spout off a bunch of gobbledygook," Rep. Curt Weldon fired at his fellow Republican.
Weldon of Pennsylvania let Flake have it for questioning $4 million to help the rotorcraft industry. "Don't stand up on the floor and make stupid allegations because you want a headline about cutting waste. This is not waste," Weldon argued.