The congressional spending spree of the past few years is well-documented, and this year promises to be no different. Over the last four years, federal spending has increased from $16,000 per household to $20,000 per household, the highest level since World War II.
The Medicare and energy bills, although experiencing different fates, share one common denominator: little reform at huge cost, while loaded with special-interest spending.
Congress's continued fiscal irresponsibility is clearly exhibited in the thousands of pork projects contained in the fiscal year 2004 omnibus spending bill. Congress is set to bust its own budget cap in order to protect pork projects such as the Please Touch Museum and Trout Genome Mapping.
Historically, Congress funded grant programs and then asked federal agencies, governors, and mayors to competitively award the grants to the most capable applicants. But over the past few years, Congress has aggressively begun bypassing these agencies, governors, and mayors and selecting the grant recipients themselves, such as Police Athletic League and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (these projects selected by Congress instead of agencies are called earmarks, or pork projects). Grant seekers can no longer simply submit a persuasive grant proposal to an unbiased agency. Now, they must master the Washington influence game and hire a lobbyist to pursue their interest.
Predictably, an entire lobbying industry has emerged to secure pork projects for those willing to pay for their services. Organizations and local governments seeking federal money can choose between dozens of powerful lobbying firms who effectively trade campaign contributions for earmarks.
Auctioning pork projects to the highest bidder reduces the number of merit-based grants for distribution by federal agencies, governors and mayors. These shortages induce Congress to expand these programs - and then earmark those new funds as well. Consequently, the number of pork projects skyrocketed from under 2,000 five years ago to 9,362 in the 2003 budget. Total spending on pork projects has correspondingly increased to over $23 billion.
This trend continues in the fiscal year (FY) 2004 appropriations bills, which include approximately 10,000 earmarks. The FY 2004 omnibus appropriations bill (HR 2673), which combines the seven bills that have not yet been enacted, includes the following pork projects:
Congress can begin a new era of fiscal restraint by scrubbing the omnibus bill clean of pork projects, and reducing wasteful spending. Overwhelmed taxpayers deserve nothing less.
Brian M. Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.