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National Earmark Project Finds Contributions In, Earmarks Out

The results are in from a massive, national earmarks project. The idea behind the investigation is simple and worth repeating: The Associated Press Managing Editors Association got together with D.C. watchdogs, the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, and trained reporters across the country on how to dig into lawmakers' earmarks.

This weekend, the AP, along with a number of regional papers, published what they came up with. The Sunlight Foundation has been compiling a full list of those local stories, which scrutinized the earmarking practices of politicians and attempted to follow the money (contributions, lobbying fees) behind them.

The first finding: Despite a succession of raging scandals involving earmarks -- lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham, the bridge to nowhere -- the practice (surprise!) remains very popular. There are a number of examples of lawmakers delivering multi-million dollar appropriations to private companies, companies that just happened to then fill the lawmakers' coffers.

The stories also make clear that the key to a successful earmark bid is getting a lobbyist -- and filling legislators' tip jars. From the AP:

"I know a bunch of members that if you go in to see them, somewhere in the conversation they somehow say, 'Well, we were looking through our list of campaign contributors and didn't happen to see you there,'" said Frank Cushing, a lobbyist with the National Group, which lobbies on appropriations bills. "Is there a quid pro quo? No, not directly, but you'd have to be pretty dense not to figure it out."

The explicit campaign solicitations usually take place in the days following a meeting where an earmark is discussed.

"You can ask any lobbyist in town. You bring a new client in to see a member and everything is nice-nice and you have a good meeting and everybody's exchanging business cards," said another lobbyist who focuses on earmarks. "Within 48 hours, the clients and their lobbyist – me – will get a fundraising phone call."

The project did not produce evidence of another Duke Cunningham. But if this becomes an annual exercise, the likelihood of lawmakers exchanging money for earmarks might just diminish.

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