"They've been going on since we were a country."
That's Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, speaking in defense of "earmarks." An earmark is Washington lingo for what most people outside the Capital Beltway refer to as pork barrel spending -- when a politician inserts into a bill a set amount of money for a specific project in his or her home district.
Earmarks allow politicians to brag that they're "bringing home the bacon," and members of Congress tout them to voters in the hopes of buying … er, winning support.
And what, you may ask, are they interested in using our tax dollars for?
Well, in one appropriations bill being debated recently in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jerry Lewis had included an earmark for $500,000 for a swimming pool in Banning, Calif. That's pretty steep for one pool. Especially when you consider, as The Heritage Foundation's Tim Chapman notes in his Townhall.com blog, that Lewis secured money for the same pool before -- $250,000 in FY 2006 and $250,000 in FY 2005.
"When this bill passes, Lewis will have secured a total of $1 million for one pool," Chapman writes. "This thing could be gold-plated!"
An exception, you say? If only. Another example from the same bill (one that, fortunately, wound up getting stripped out): $300,000 for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center to build a multi-purpose center. And as The Wall Street Journal notes in a June 15 editorial, "members are pushing through another 1,500 special spending projects."
Past spending bills, according to Heritage budget expert Ronald Utt, have included such, ahem, national priorities as:
- A tattoo-removal program in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. ($50,000)
- The Fort Union Trading Post Bike Trail in North Dakota ($500,000)
- The Center on Obesity at West Virginia University ($2 million)
- An effort to combat "goth culture" in Blue Springs, Mo. ($270,000)
To hear Sen. Reid tell it, this is business as usual, and it's
been going on for years. A chart in a recent paper by Utt,
though, suggests otherwise. Looking just at the bills that provide
highway funds, Utt found that one in 1982 contained only 10
earmarks. Five years later, that number had risen to 152; in 1991,
it was up to 538. Then in 1998, it hit 1,850 -- to be followed last
year by a staggering 6,371 earmarks.
"In large part," Utt writes, "this escalation in the number of earmarks reflects the growing number of lobbyists offering to obtain them for a fee. As the number of earmarks increases with each passing year, the business attracts more lobbyists who apply more pressure on Congress to spend more on pork barrel spending." In short, you have a vicious circle.
So it was gratifying to see lawmakers actually take some steps recently to rein in pork. A supplemental spending bill intended to provide funding for Iraq and the war on terrorism, as well as to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, was up for debate. But what else was in the Senate version? Some $700 million to relocate a working railroad in Mississippi a few miles north. A $4 billion farm bailout and $594 million in highway spending. And the Senate would have spent $1.14 billion on the fisheries and seafood industries affected by Katrina, and $20 million for AmeriCorps.
But Heritage and other conservative commentators, including several key blogs, were on the case, highlighting this so-called "emergency" funding. President Bush made a strong veto threat on anything that rose above his target amount of $94.5 billion. Then, as if to prove how utterly addicted they are to pork, some lawmakers floated the idea of an across-the-board cut -- one that would have cut funding not only for the pork but for our troops.
Fortunately, some brave lawmakers quashed this notion, and the bill that emerged from conference stayed within the president's limit. The "railroad to nowhere"? Gone. The farm bailout? Scaled back to $500 million. The $594 million in highway funds? Left by the side of the road. The money for fisheries was chopped down to $118 million, and the amount for AmeriCorps was halved. Not perfect, but quite an improvement.
Yet we have much further to go if such victories are to become the norm. That's why The Heritage Foundation supports fundamental budget reform: The current budget process, according to Heritage's Brian Riedl, is designed to maximize spending. The result: today's unaffordable spending sprees.
"The federal government last year spent a peacetime-record $23,760 per household," Riedl says. "Adjusted for inflation, that's the most since World War II. Who believes they're getting $23,760 worth for what they're paying?"
Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of The Heritage Foundation and the author of Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture that's Gone Stark Raving Mad.