As the Democratic-controlled US Senate moved last week toward passing a bill that would introduce greater transparency in the use of earmarks to appropriate funds for local projects, an interesting Washington sidelight cropped up. An article in The New York Times [table accompanying article not available online] reported that Representative Norm Dicks (D-District 6) ranks among the top Democrats in the House of Representatives in pulling in money for his constituency through earmarks. This year, he has placed 33 separate earmarks worth a total of $44,025,000. Earmarks are individual funding mandates attached to spending bills that direct funds to specific projects rather than allowing executive agencies to disburse them at will. Because the process by which earmarks are appended to bills has historically been murky and secretive, earmarks are seen by many government watchdogs and reformers as an invitation to corruption. Others argue that the process is frivolous, allowing legislators to attach funds for pet projects to important spending bills. Earmarks are the primary component of the kind of federal spending labelled as "pork" by detractors. The total value of earmarks ballooned from $219 million in 1994 to $16.8 billion in 2005. The debate is not entirely one-sided; some see the process as a way to get around cumbersome bureaucracies and to ensure funding for undervalued or ignored issues. In this age of tax cuts, moreover, earmarks are a way for representatives to keep local services from suffering under budgetary pressures. Additionally, legislators see earmarks as a way of proving their worth and keeping constituents happy by bringing in a consistent flow of federal funds. As the Times reports, new rules in the House designed to ensure greater transparency to the process may have actually provided an incentive for legislators to earmark funds; while good-government activists may decry the practice, representatives are happy to announce their successes in bringing money to their districts. Dicks, who represents Washington's 6th District encompassing the Olympic Peninsula, Kitsap County and Tacoma, has been successful in large part due to positions on key committees. He is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, the most powerful funding body in the House. He also sits on the Defense, Interior and Environment, and Military Construction/Veterans appropriations subcommittees. These posts enable him to wield great power in representing a district encompassing troubled Hood Canal, naval bases at Bremerton and Bangor, and large military populations. Many of Dicks' earmarks reflect the nature of his district: $200,000 for studying oxygen overloads in the Hood Canal, $2.5 million for wastewater treatment in areas currently relying on septic tanks, $1.5 million towards the purchase of a fast passenger-only ferry to ply the route between Bremerton and Seattle, and millions of dollars in various appropriations for naval research and development. Dicks also placed numerous agricultural earmarks, frequently teaming up with eastern Washington representative Doc Hasting (R-District 4) in a display of bipartisan comity. Spreadsheets with listings of earmarks in all major spending bills this year can be found online on the site of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Dicks' earmarks, for the most part, do not appear to be frivolous, though military appropriations in particular can be hard to judge. Part of the problem with earmarks is that pressing local problems, such as oxygenation in the Hood Canal, can seem quaint or impossible to comprehend from a national perspective. Nonetheless, many argue that the increased reliance of lawmakers on earmarks has had a corrupting effect on the federal budgeting process, encouraging legislators to jockey for an advantage in bringing as much funding as possible to their districts without concern for the broader fiscal picture. In any case, attempts so far to rein in the process appear to have done nothing to cut the enthusiasm of lawmakers for earmarks. Judging from Dicks' longevity -- he has spent 30 years in the House -- his constituents seem to be pleased with his efforts.