Earmarks: Why Alaska Isn't Left Out In the Cold

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
One of the maddening things about the system of Congressional earmarks, as it exists today, is how unfair the distribution of the wealth can be.

There are normal budgetary competitive and grant processes by which all types of worthy projects can receive federal funding: museums, art projects, scientific research, assistance for poor regions, and much more.

However, earmarks bypass the normal system and result in giving federal money to people or projects often handpicked by a single member of Congress.

In other words: it's who you know. It's the access you have. And how much you get depends on the power that your Senator or Representative has. If yours is a freshman member not serving in a leadership role on any important committees well, you're probably not gonna get a lot. If you're not someone who is seen as friendly to the Senator or Representative well, you're probably not gonna get a lot.

But if your Senator is like Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the leading Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, who's been around Capitol Hill going on 40 years now, you stand to get a whole lot.

Thanks to Senator Stevens, research money has been given to Alaska researchers—whether or not they may be the best at what they're trying to do, and whether or not the research is a national priority. Stevens made it happen. Thanks to Senator Stevens, the Alaska salmon industry has received tens of millions of federal dollars. To be sure, the industry is grateful for the money and extra promotion, but there are plenty of ailing industries and regions in the nation equally as deserving or in need… but not getting the same money because they don't have as powerful a Senator scooping up federal money for them.

Of course, as one Stevens critic pointed out, the knife cuts both ways. Stevens is 83-years-old and won't be the senior Senator from Alaska forever. He'll eventually be replaced by someone who isn't head of a powerful spending committee and doesn't have the same clout. Suddenly, says the critic, millions upon millions that Alaska has been getting for years will disappear. They'll go instead to a more senior, powerful Senator from another state. Alaska will be left in the cold.

Tonight our story on the CBS Evening News highlights just how much sparsely populated Alaska is getting in earmark dollars, thanks in large part to one Senator.

Earmarks: not necessarily fair, but great for those who are getting them. While they last.

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