for a list of FY 2008 pork projects
Despite pledges to rein in pork, the Democratic Congress has included a combined 11,351 pork projects in the House and Senate appropriations bills. If this legislation passes, thousands of government grants will be distributed based on politics, lobbying, and/or campaign donations, rather than on merit. Members of Congress should listen to the demands of frustrated voters and eliminate these projects.
Democrats Return to the Pork Barrel
Democratic leaders pledged to rein in the practice of pork-barrel spending that had skyrocketed under the Republican majority and had spawned numerous criminal corruption investigations.
First, congressional Democrats pledged to clean up the pork-barrel process. While the ethics bill signed by President Bush contained some reforms, such as requiring the names of each earmark's congressional sponsor, lawmakers significantly weakened the rest of the bill, by:
- Removing a provision to ban the trading of pork projects for votes;
- Weakening provisions aimed at stopping pork projects that financially benefit lawmakers;
- Transferring Senate earmark enforcement powers from the neutral Senate parliamentarian to the partisan Senate Majority Leader;
- Permitting bills to be voted on without first disclosing pork projects; and
- Weakening a provision requiring that pork projects be made available on the Internet before congressional votes.
That is not all. Reversing earlier pledges, Congress applied these new rules only to earmarks in appropriations bills and chose to ignore earmarks in tax, entitlement, or authorization bills. Earlier this year, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) announced his intention to keep secret the pork projects in spending bills until after the bills had passed the House; the ensuing public backlash forced him to back down. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently announced that it will no longer track pork projects at all. By and large, the Democratic majority has not sufficiently backed up their reform rhetoric.
The Democrats' other pledge was to cut the number of pork projects in half, from the 2005 peak of 13,492 to 6,746. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the number of pork projects in the spending bills thus far totals 6,651 in the House and 4,700 in the Senate, respectively. If lawmakers follow the typical practice of adding House and Senate earmarks together in conference committee, they will easily break their pledge.
Two other events stand out. Following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) offered an amendment calling on the Senate to place a temporary moratorium on transportation pork until all structurally deficient bridges are repaired. Amazingly, the Senate voted 82-14 to prioritize pork over bridge repairs in the transportation budget.
Then, the Department of Veterans Affairs proposed selling $4 billion worth of its valuable but vacant land in a super-wealthy area of west Los Angeles. This $4 billion could then have been used to provide additional medical care for America's veterans. However, this land is also surrounded by the Beverly Hills estates of individuals like Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Tim McGraw, and Barry Bonds. When locals reportedly complained that this development would, among other things, impede the views from their mansions, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) inserted an earmark to cancel the land sale. The Senate voted 66-25 to side with the Beverly Hills millionaires.
The Case Against Pork
Historically, Congress funded grant programs and then asked federal agencies, governors, and mayors to award the grants competitively to the most capable applicants. But over the past decade, Congress has increasingly bypassed such competition and selected (or "earmarked") grant recipients on its own, such as the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy and the Montana World Trade Center. Instead of submitting persuasive grant proposals to unbiased agencies, grant seekers today are often forced to play the Washington influence game and hire lobbyists to win federal funds.
Giving lawmakers their own pot of taxpayer dollars to distribute as they wish invites corruption. Not surprisingly, the media has been saturated with stories of lawmakers earmarking federal grants to projects directly benefiting campaign contributors, friends, relatives, and even themselves.
In addition to waste and corruption, lawmakers' obsession with pork raises a larger concern about the role of the federal government. Members of the U.S. Congress--a legislature that has historically debated national concerns such as war, Americans' rights, and broad economic policy--have become, in the words of Rep. Dan Lungren (R-California), "mere errand boysfor local government and constituents."
So far this year, Congress has failed to address the looming tidal wave of spending for Social Security and Medicare, but it did decide that Boydton, Virginia, could use a new walking tour. Congress has not solved the burgeoning problem of the Alternative Minimum Tax, but it did decide that some bike trails in Highland, Indiana, should be upgraded. Vital national issues are being ignored by lawmakers who instead focus their energy on determining how much in tax dollars to send to the Hunting & Fishing Museum of Pennsylvania.
Tending to such matters is the responsibility of state and local governments. Perhaps Members of Congress do not believe that local governments can handle the job; former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) endorsed congressional pork by asking rhetorically, "Who knows best where to put a bridge or a highway or a red light in their district?" Not mayors or city councils, apparently.
Of course, lawmakers say that pork projects are a vital way to "bring home federal dollars." In reality, they are carved out of funding streams that were already coming back to state and local governments and private organizations anyway. The money earmarked in the $5 billion Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program for parks, pools, street signs, and community centers just reduces the pot of money left over to distribute to local governments for the projects of their choosing, such as housing subsidies for poor families now stuck on the waiting list. But pork generates publicity and campaign contributions for lawmakers--who in fact have only tied strings to federal money that was already coming home.
If the attached pork projects were truly worthy, they should have no problem getting funded through the regular merit-based grant application process. Instead, Congress felt it necessary to bypass this process and mandate federal funding for these projects without first having to justify the projects to a federal agency. Such pork projects are a major reason why Congress's popularity remains at a historic low with the American people.
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.