May 2, 2002

May 2, 2002 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Pork-Barrel Spending: Congress Goes Hog Wild

Congress has been drubbed for years -- and rightly so -- for loading up its annual spending bills with "pork," those pet projects for the home district that wind up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. And for just as long, those criticisms have been largely ignored.

But this year, you'd think, is different. With the war on terrorism underway and the economy recovering from a recession, surely we can't spare even a dime for anything that isn't vital.

So what do we find in this year's spending bills? Pork -- and a record amount of it.

In fact, the bills are larded with nearly 8,000 pork-barrel "earmarks" worth about $15 billion. This year's round-up includes proposals to extend federal responsibility to such projects 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)

One can only begin to imagine what possessed a majority in Congress to propose spending more than a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars to help a prosperous Kansas City suburb deal with black-clad, alienated teens posing as spawns of Nosferatu. This is an essential responsibility of the national government?

Small wonder that Mitchell Daniels, the president's budget director, said the pork problem "has gotten out of hand" and that "Congress ought to moderate its appetite for these programs." But his criticism only irritated many lawmakers who felt he was interfering with important congressional prerogatives.

"The power of the purse resides solely with Congress," House Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. Young, R-Fla., wrote in a letter to Daniels. "Unless the Constitution is amended, Congress will continue to exercise its discretion over federal funds for purposes we deem appropriate."

Chairman Young has it exactly right. Just as the First Amendment protects the rights even of a fool to speak his mind no matter how peculiar his thoughts may be, Title I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution states that "no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law," which gives Congress the right to spend the federal government's money -- even for ludicrous projects. The Constitution adds no caveat that the money should be spent wisely.

In short, Congress has every right to fund therapeutic horseback riding in Apple Valley, Calif. ($150,000) and a dolphin replacement project in Washington state ($4 million).

But more is at stake in this issue than constitutional authority, according to Chairman Young: "All wisdom on the allocation of federal funding does not reside in the executive branch. Members know the needs of their districts better than civil servants working in Washington, D.C." Chairman Young's remarks conjure up images of dedicated elected officials responding to the broad concerns of constituents.

Which implies that there was a groundswell of public sentiment in Missouri for a million-dollar program to see if public transit buses and trains can run on soybeans. And that Texans asked for $300,000 to pull weeds from the Navidad and Lavaca rivers. And that Hawaiians, native Alaskans, and the residents of Massachusetts petitioned loudly for $5 million to facilitate cultural exchanges that would allow them to reflect on the common roots of their 19th century whaling heritage.

Pork actually has a different genesis, of course. Many lobbying firms openly boast of their ability to "sell" local officials on them. In fact, quite a few publicly advertise their success at securing federal funds.

One firm, Washington, D.C.-based Sagamore Associates, notes on its Web site that shepherding federal-funding requests is a "high priority" for many clients. "More than half our firm's work is comprised of this activity, and our track record is strong," it says. The Web site of The Carmen Group, Inc. (also of Washington) contains a section called "Success Stories" in which it details how it obtained $860,000 in federal tax money for an historically black college, $269 million in future funding for a light rail system and other earmarks.

Lawmakers can make all the constitutional appeals they want. But it's clear that pork is rooted in electoral insecurity and the desire to buy public affection. The question is, do they have to do it with the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers?

Ronald Utt is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire