Common Cause released a new report [pdf here] Wednesday showing that just the members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense inserted more than $355 million in earmarks into the 2008 defense spending bill on behalf of their campaign contributors. Those contributors, according to campaign disclosure reports, donated a total of $1.3 million to the individual members who sponsored the earmarks.

Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) tops the list and usually gets most of the attention for adding earmarks that benefit his contributors and send no-bid contracts back to his district in Pennsylvania, many of questionable value to the taxpayer. But this review shows he is far from alone.

Rep. Murtha inserted a total of $166.5 million worth of earmarks in last year’s defense appropriations bill, $73.6 million of which went to some of his biggest contributors. The recipients of those earmarks donated a total of $313,150 to Rep. Murtha’s reelection campaign or his leadership PAC during the 2008 election. Rep. James Moran (D-VA) inserted about $30 million worth of earmarks, and those companies rewarded him with about $264,000. The list goes on…

The numbers are yet another example of the conflicts of interest that arise from our corrupting campaign finance system that pressures elected officials and candidates to constantly raise large sums of money, often from the special interests who want the most in return.

We must end the widespread practice of what appears to be trading earmarks for campaign cash. This game distorts our nation’s spending priorities and erodes public trust in our government.

Questions have been raised about whether Rep. Murtha inserted earmarks in exchange for campaign contributions. Common Cause has joined others in calling on the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate. But the real answer here is to change the way America pays for its elections with the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow candidates to swear off big money and run for office on a blend of small donations and public funds.