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Not in the 50 years I've been in Washington have I witnessed the stranglehold special interest groups now have on our political system.

In Fairmont, West Virginia, a new Institute for Scientific Research sits in what used to be a pasture. This "research center," which cost taxpayers $103 million, boasts a swimming pool, sauna, and spa. It's nearly empty and likely to stay that way. A ranking member of Congress who snuck funding for it into a law is under investigation.

Then there's the Florida resort town called Treasure Island, which wanted $15 million to rebuild a crumbling bridge. City officials hired a lobbyist buddy of a Florida congressman, then chairman of the appropriations committee. The congressman delivered special appropriations, not for $15 million, but for $50 million.

Clearly, the real Treasure Island is Washington's K Street, where lobbyists work—4,000 of them, according to journalist John Fund.

Like the Institute for Scientific Research, Treasure Island's bridge was funded through earmarks. Members of Congress add these expenditures, which bypass the budgeting process and earn approval without debate. Last year, more than 15,000 earmarks cost taxpayers $47 billion dollars. Many are infamous—like Alaska's "bridge to nowhere."

Earmarks have become an epidemic. The number of earmarks has doubled in the last six years. So have the number of public entities hiring Washington lobbyists. For communities, police, and firefighters, lobbyists are worth their weight in gold—or pork. For example, the city of Portland, Oregon, spent $1.2 million on lobbyists in 2005 and received $94 million in earmarked funds—a handsome return.

Powerful special interests have become, in effect, a fourth branch of government, ...

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The Earmark Epidemic
hide thisOctober October

In the Magazine

October 2006

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