(WATCH) Return of Earmarks

Today we take stock of Congressional earmarks, a much-criticized practice that persists regardless of which political party controls the House or the Senate. At stake, many billions of your tax dollars.

In 2021, Democrats controlling Congress gave the green light to restart earmarks after a 10-year ban.

Republican Senator Joni Ernst.

Ernst: I stand against earmarks. I think it is an incredible way to waste taxpayer dollars.

Sharyl: Can you explain in a very simple way what’s allowed right now with earmarks and what isn’t allowed?

Ernst: It’s hard to know what’s allowed right now in Congress. There was a decade-long moratorium on earmarks, so virtually a ban on earmarks, and yet we have seen now Democrats in 2021 decide that earmarks would be allowed.

Sharyl: And in very simple terms, what is an earmark?

Ernst: Earmark is a set-aside, a way to fund pet projects. They are decided upon by a single member of Congress. They can say, “I want to build this bridge, and so, give me $15 million to do so.” It may not benefit a huge part of the population. It may not benefit people in another state. But those Congressmen are allowed to wheel and deal, and set aside dollars for things that they think will benefit them in their re-elections.

Sharyl: And it might benefit the interest of a donor or supporter, which we’ve found in the past.

Ernst: Absolutely. Unfortunately, this environment is ripe for waste within our federal government. 

A few stats: the Senate Appropriations Committee, which authorizes spending of taxpayer money, has tucked about about $7.6 billion worth of earmarks for 3,700 items in various legislation for fiscal 2024.

Although the Senate is controlled by a Democrat majority, three Republicans top the list of biggest individual earmarkers. The three GOP senators are sometimes viewed as friendly to Democrat agendas, fueling critics’ claims that party leaders give members the ability to earmark large amounts as rewards, or withhold it as punishment.

The top spot belongs to Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska at $465 million. Number two is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina with $395 million. At number three is Susan Collins of Maine: $366 million.

Three-fourths of earmarkers in the Senate are Democrats or Democrat-leaning. Holding the number one spot on that side is Brian Schatz of Hawaii at $286 million. Second is Independent Angus King of Maine. Third is Patty Murray of Washington state.

In the Republican-controlled House, 65% of the earmark requests are from Democrats, with the grand total at $7.4 billion tax dollars.

The earmarks are for a wide variety of projects, ranging from infrastructure help to research that sounds silly.

Ernst: Things like an underwater whack-a-mole game, basically, for dolphins. We’re spending taxpayer dollars on that activity. In the past, we have seen spas for cats. Of course, the old one that we all talk about is shrimp on a treadmill. 

Sharyl: One other project I saw that the picture really stuck out was the picture of the pig using a joystick and a video game or something.

Ernst: With his snout. Yes. So we also are teaching pigs to play video games using a joystick with their snouts. Ways to cook up insects to be entrees, edible entrees, for human beings. And the federal government doesn’t need to do that. And it’s costing Iowans. It’s costing everyone. And I guarantee ya, there probably aren’t a lot of Iowans that are wondering how to cook up insects.

For 2024, the combined earmark total in the House and Senate comes to about 15 billion tax dollars.

Watch story here.

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