The February 7 Washington Post had a front-page story on how members of Congress have used those ubiquitous "earmarks"—federal monies directed by Congress to specific purposes—to foster public projects right near the homes or investment properties of those very members of Congress. The piece jumps to the inside, with two full pages of investigative prose and mini-profiles of sixteen specific examples. Earmarks are a scourge on American democracy, not because they represent a material amount of money in the bloated federal budget but because they are a recipe for corruption.
Heretofore the focus has been on members helping favored constituents who then contribute significantly to those members’ campaigns. The Post, in a bit of really probing journalism, shows that the corruption goes beyond that. There’s no particular reason this should be surprising. It should be a rule of thumb in politics that entrenched power always gets abused. That’s what this story is all about.
Of course, the members deny that there is any corruption here—or that there is any connection at all between the earmarked funds and their own interests. As the Post said, "Any potential personal benefit—financial or otherwise—is nonexistent, minimal or secondary to the needs of the public, they said."
That rings hollow, of course, and is likely to seem even more hollow after the next installment in this two-part series—a look at money delivered to institutions connected to lawmakers’ relatives.
This is the kind of journalism for which newspapers were once famous. There’s less of it now because these venerable institutions have less money to invest in it. But the Post, while hardly the robust daily feast of news and commentary it once was, still demonstrates an occasional capacity to rise to the heights of journalism. This is one example of that, and it’s very smart.