The Congressional Piggy-Bank

Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative correspondent for CBS News.
When Democrats took over Congress last year, they pledged to cut back on Congressional earmarks: grants of money without the normal public review. Too often, say critics, earmarks end up going to some senator or congressman's friends, donors or associates. And because earmarks aren't subject to the normal competition and review of budget items, critics also say they're ripe for fraud, waste and abuse. Earmarks cost billions of tax dollars each year, and have ballooned in number in recent years. Members of Congress seem to have discovered it's a great way to "bring home the bacon" and attract donations and votes among the receiving constituents.

Democrats partially delivered on their promise. There are fewer earmarks this year. But numbering more than 11,000, totaling billions of dollars, many say there are still too many ... worth too much.

And earmarks have tapped into voter outrage.

Voters are angry that gas prices and taxes are high, the economic outlook is poor, many of them are looking for ways to tighten their belts. But Congress seems to be spending their tax dollars on earmark items that are far from national priorities. It's as if the members of Congress see tax dollars as a piggy bank they can pull from with impunity, without appreciation as to where the money is really coming from. Have a great idea for a teapot museum? A prison museum? Just hire a lobbyist to set up a meeting with your local member of Congress and get an earmark. Need a few federal contracts to spur your private business? Make the right connections and you can get an earmark from Congress. Want a little extra money for projects, even though your non-profit has a $100 million dollar endowment? If you know the right member of Congress, federal taxpayers will kick in.

In an election year, President Bush and Republicans are attempting to capitalize on the voter outrage. Republicans are supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatives. Yet the record-breaking year for earmarks happened while they controlled Congress. Some Republicans are among the most prolific earmarkers in Congress, and several are under federal investigation related to their earmarking practices. Will they be able to win over the hearts and minds of the party faithful?

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