Friday, September 25, 2009

Congressional Earmarks: What Are They?

The process of Congressional earmarking has received heavy news coverage in recent months, as U.S. citizens evaluate the effectiveness of government spending projects. Situations like the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and Senator Mitch McConnell’s personal charity appropriations have drawn attention to the lack of transparency and potential moral hazards that accompany the earmarking process. The following brief document provides an explanation and history of earmarking, along with a summary of the more significant criticisms of the practice.


Earmarking is the process by which members of Congress allocate budgeted money toward a specific program or project. They can be added to the Congressional Appropriations Budget or inserted into any bill as line items. Proponents of earmarks claim that they enable members of Congress to intelligently direct funds where they are most needed among their constituents, instead of deferring to the Executive Branch to allocate expenditures in potentially wasteful ways. The process of logrolling, or the inclusion of reciprocal earmarks, allows the sponsor of a bill to solicit support from other members of Congress; in effect “purchasing” a vote in exchange for an earmark.


While earmarking occurred as early as 1817, the practice was not widely seen until the 1980’s. The chart to the right shows that between 1996 and 2008, annual earmarks grew from 958 to 14,093. Incidentally, the total annual spending by lobbyists rose from $1.44 billion in 1998 to $3.30 billion in 2008.

Since the 110th Congress, the earmark process has been more tightly regulated: members must post their earmarks on a website and declare that they have no personal interest in the request. In addition, the OMB and private groups such as are expanding efforts to catalog and monitor earmarking behavior. The additional transparency and accountability from these efforts


While earmarks total only two percent of the Federal budget, critics argue that earmarks pose a significant moral hazard to the legislative process: lobbyists often give large donations to the campaign funds of members of Congress in order to secure earmarks. Since until recently, earmarks were usually inserted anonymously into legislation, they were also a convenient way to secretly award loyalty or punish enemies.

Since a member of Congress may insert a budget earmark for projects outside his/her geographical jurisdiction, lobbyists who are rejected by officials from one state are often able to secure funding from members in a different state. For example, Congressman Dan Young from Alaska earmarked $10 million to fund the construction of a highway interchange in Florida. Further research revealed that Congressman Young received a $40,000 campaign donation from the developer of the property. Behaviors such as this will hopefully be reduced by recent and future reforms.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Not Finishing a Book

Are you the kind of person who checks out dozens of books and only reads a few of them? When I go to the library I feel like a hungry man at an all-you-can-eat buffet: I know that I can only eat so much, and I regret that I can't try everything. I still put too much on my plate, knowing that I will throw away half of it, but I just can't stop trying new foods.

I have been chipping away at a fascinating book about a journalist's travels through Iran, and I was very annoyed the other day to receive an email reminder from the library, telling me that the book was due. I felt this pang of regret, knowing that life would move on and I would probably never finish the book--it would go on the ever-growing pile of unfinished projects, partially-read books, and abandoned hobbies.

Just when I was about to sink into one of those bouts of self-pity I had a realization: Do you have to finish a book to enjoy it? Maybe not. I don't have to know someone's life story to have a meaningful discussion with them. I met a guy from Mali yesterday; we had a great discussion for a few minutes and then went on with our lives. He didn't ask me about my third-grade teacher, and I didn't get his position on Kanye West, but I would still call the conversation a success.

I wonder if we're just too hard on ourselves. I think we often forget that Sherlock Holmes and Hermione Granger are not real people--we don't have to become an expert in everything we're interested in, complete every project we begin, or finish every book we check out. There are so many hours in a day, and when you think about it, years in a life.

I was falling asleep last night, going through the frantic "did I forget anything today" to-do list, and remembered my late library books. I thought to myself, "I met a fascinating book the other day." It was okay that I didn't finish it--there were millions of books still waiting for me, and I would probably meet a few tomorrow.

Jamaican Food

I was browsing around the other day and found this recipe for a Jamaican dish called "ackee and saltfish." It is the national dish of Jamaica, and contains peppers, onions, flaked fish, and ackee, a very strange fruit that apparently resembles and tastes like scrambled eggs!

I decided that I had to try it. I went to an ethnic grocery store looking for ackee, but to no avail. The dish is usually made with salted cod, I assume because two hundred years ago the ships would bring cheap dried fish

from Boston in exchange for sugar cane and rum. Now the cod probably comes from Norway. I settled for two large fillets of frozen grey sole. They were beautiful, white fillets that didn't smell fishy at all.

When I got home I marinated the fish in lime juice, salt, pepper, paprike, and a little allspice (what's Jamaican food without allspice?).

I let that sit awhile and sautéed two bell peppers with an onion and some cayenne pepper in butter. I threw in some thyme, salt, and pepper.

Meanwhile, I cooked the fish and flaked it with a fork. Once it was done I tossed in the vegetables, then scrambled five eggs and gently mixed them in.

For the sides, I nuked a sweet potato for a few minutes, then sliced it up and browned it in butter with salt and pepper. We had a can of mangosteens, so we added them on the side.
Our house smelled wonderful! It was a combination of caramelized onions, thanksgiving yams, and a hint of fried eggs.

I have to put in a note about mangosteens: I've only had them canned, but they are supposedly the most delicious fruit in the world. They look like white peeled tangerines. Each little section tastes halfway between a pear and a grape, with brilliantly sweet citrus overtones. At $4 it was easily the most expensive part of the meal, but definitely worth it.

This was a memorable meal, and very cheap. The fish and eggs went wonderfully with the onions and peppers. The sweet and salty yams provided a wonderful foundation, and a bite of mangosteen added a bit of tang at the end. We fed five people for about $10.