A Monument To Ego?

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
My most recent "Eye on Your Money" story looks at a hefty earmark Congressman Charles Rangel of New York got for a project that will bear his name, a library that will house his "papers," the Charles B. Rangel Conference Center and more. Critics suggest it's a monument to Rangel's ego and an inappropriate use of federal tax dollars.

Our past "Eye on Your Money" reports have looked at earmarks by other members of Congress for items such as a Teapot Museum (that may never be built), upgrades to a trendy Washington DC neighborhood (where the earmarking member of Congress happens to own property… so does his friend who's running the neighborhood redevelopment project and spending the earmark money), and hundreds of millions of dollars for a military jet engine that the military doesn't want.

Of course not all earmarks are inherently questionable or inappropriate. Most members of Congress agree that earmarks (last minute add-ons to appropriations bills without the normal public review) for emergency unplanned spending are necessary and justifiable.

But among all the earmarks, an estimated $22 billion dollars a YEAR, according to one watchdog group, is considered questionable "pork." That means the earmark may go to entities that are undeserving or don't even exist. The money may end up in the pocket of groups, companies and organizations that contribute to the earmarking members of Congress giving the appearance of an inappropriate quid pro quo. The earmark may even go to good causes, but causes that only benefit a few and are not traditionally the job of federal taxpayers to fund.

When I've asked the recipients of criticized earmarks to explain why they sought federal funds for their local projects, many of them have told me they themselves were surprised to know that federal tax dollars would be given for their projects but that "this is apparently how it works in Washington D.C." In other words, they sought the money simply because they're told they can get it. Interestingly, entire networks of lobbyists and non-profits have made a cottage industry out of finding little causes and telling them that they could get federal money if they approach the right member of Congress. The lobbyists and non-profits pay themselves and their costs out of the earmark money they get so there's no risk to, and no cost to the would-be recipient.

To me, the most surprising thing I've discovered about earmarks is that they require no proof of anything. No budget has to be presented, no proof of how the money will be spent, no proof after the fact that the money was spent a certain way, and no proof that the project is even for real. Your federal tax dollars simply disappear into thousands of holes around the country and, for the most part, you'll never know what became of them.

You'll also never receive the benefit of many of the earmarks. For all the local "bee research" and "plant genome analyzing" and "beaver control projects" earmarks have funded, there's no requirement than any subsequent scientific discoveries or results belong to the taxpayers that helped fund the projects.

For projects that end up earning money off the earmarks, there's no requirement that they pay back the taxpayers or give back a cut of the profits.

In short: for those who know how to get them, earmarks are the easiest money around. For taxpayers, they often are not such a sweet deal.

Which is why you'll be seeing a lot more stories on them coming up on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.