NPR logo Washington Post's Earmarks Project Sparks Criticism Of Congress, Paper

Washington Post's Earmarks Project Sparks Criticism Of Congress, Paper

The Washington Post's investigation of lawmakers and the federal spending or earmarks they've sent back to their districts to fund projects near real estate they own resonates in a political climate in which Congress is held in such relatively low repute.

The Post also highlighted instances of earmarked dollars going to institutions where lawmakers' relatives worked or volunteered.

But not all the reaction has been the predictable outrage at members of Congress for allegedly misusing their offices to enrich themselves by funding construction of roads etc that could boost the value of their nearby properties.

Some readers actually thought the Post series to be an unjustified case of guilt by geolocation. Readers said that as constituents they expected lawmakers to bring federal dollars back their districts.

Also, just because a project that received an earmark is close to a lawmaker's residence or some other property they might own, doesn't mean the politician was trying to financially benefit, some readers said.

Keith Smith, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific criticized the story in his department's blog. He writes:

The Post's story, however, is a classic example of the media doing data analysis poorly in the name of (a) gotcha story. Here are a few criticisms:

(1) We ought to expect a correlation between where Members of Congress live and the location of the projects they push for. First, MC's are supposed to fight for projects in their districts. Second, MC's live in the districts they represent. Third, districts are a function of population; urban districts will be geographically small because they have more people living closely together. Taken together, these three conditions mean that it should be more likely that urban members will more frequently "benefit" from the location of the projects...

Several Post staffers who worked on the series, Scott Higham, Kimberly Kindy and David Fallis, held a chat with readers Tuesday in which they encountered similar criticisms:


"... You're implying malfeasance in every case without demonstrating it exists in every case. Shouldn't you be differentiating in some fashion? Isn't it disingenuous to lump every earmark (which is the legal way of distributing this money, like it or not) as evidence of sleaze where none may exist? I mean earmarks may be a terrible system, but it happens to be the legal way congress does it. Don't hate the player, hate the game.



"I think you had an interesting idea for an article series, but you really need some sort of analysis to support your contention. Are the projects receiving federal money near congress person's homes out of the ordinary? As in, is there an abnormally higher expenditure of federal revenue closer to their homes than the homes of other people in their districts?

Not all the feedback in the chat was negative. There were readers who were clearly grateful for the Post's prodigious effort to look at ten years of records for all 535 members of Congress.

Higham of the Post said the goal of the series wasn't to impeach the integrity of the lawmakers but to point out the lack of transparency in the earmarking process since there's no requirement that lawmakers publicly disclose how near a project that received an earmark is to the lawmakers' property.

Kindy of the Post responded to one question with this:

"... We did not label an earmark as "good" or "bad." The stories point out flaws in the financial disclosure system. It should be very easy for voters to determine whether an earmark is by a lawmakers' property or if an earmark went to an organization where a relative works. It is not."