Crunching The Numbers On Earmarks

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
The numbers have been crunched, and if you are a fan of earmarks you'll be ecstatic. If you're not crazy about eamarks, you'll think far too much of your tax dollars are going toward them again.

The most complete data on earmarks is available this year for the first time -- which members of Congress are earmarking how much for exactly what. That's because, when Democrats took control of Congress, they changed an old rule: formerly, earmarks could be done anonymously. Under the new rules, members must attach their names to their earmarks.

They still don't make it easy. You can't just plug in a search term to some Congressional database and come up with earmarks. The spending bills have to be searched line by line. Furthermore, the amounts are not necessarily next to the members' names, the projects are not necessarily next to the amounts.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has collected what is probably the most complete database on earmarks in progress for fiscal year 2008. At our request, they looked for the likely top ten spenders in the House and Senate. The results are below.

Keep in mind not all earmarks are inherently wasteful or bad. But they've grown from nearly non-existent in the 1970's to a peak of more than 15,000 in 2005 according to the Congressional Research Office and critics say that's just out of control. The fact is, earmarks are the cheapest, easiest way for members of Congress to win votes at home: often by using YOUR taxpayer dollars for pet projects in their districts. Problem is, according to critics, earmarks work outside the normal budget processes, circumventing the carefully established merit-based system that includes checks and balances, and competitive bidding and grants. The most powerful members of Congress who sit on the most important spending committees get a disproportionate amount of earmarks, though their districts and projects may be no more deserving than any other. Too often, earmarks are given to Congressional donors, friends or groups that have the best lobbyists.

In case you're wondering who is the King of Earmarks this year? As the numbers are crunched by Taxpayers for Common Sense, it's gotta be Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican of Mississippi who's served in Congress for about 35 years. For fiscal year 2008, he's managed to scoop up a mind-boggling $773-million dollars worth of money for special earmark projects, on top of the normal federal budget and emergency spending.

That's a heck of a lot of coin for any single person on the planet to direct. And it might make you mad. But it probably makes Cochran a hero back home, wins him votes, and helps ensure he'll be here in Washington, spending your money, about as long as he wants.

Top Ten Senate and House Earmarkers*

Senate Member Name -- Earmark Total**

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. $773,598,178

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska $501,882,500

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. $429,516,946

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Haw. $404,193,701

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. $383,167,294

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. $335,717,010

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa $288,674,244

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. $247,162,574

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. $215,912,850

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. $177,793,375

House Member Name -- Earmark Total

Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla. $161,149,000

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. $151,057,000

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. $136,845,000

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. $96,405,146

Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind. $90,924,000

Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis. $90,124,500

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. $89,611,000

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. $87,096,000

Rep. Dave Hobson, R-Ohio $79,801,500

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Miss. $40,712,040

Source: Taxpayers For Common Sense (TCS)

* TCS does not track earmark data for all members of Congress. In this case, the group analyzed data for the known biggest spenders.

** Fiscal Year 2008

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