November 15, 2006 | WebMemo on Federal Budget
Congress's pork gravy train rolls on despite promises to slow or stop it. As Congress returns to finish the final 11 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2007, it will take up House and Senate bills currently containing an estimated 10,000 pork projects, about as many as last year. Members of Congress should listen to the demands of frustrated voters and eliminate these projects.
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 few years, Congress has increasingly bypassed such competition and selected (or "earmarked") grant recipients on its own, such as the Alabama Beef Connection and the Montana World Trade Center. No longer do grant seekers just submit persuasive grant proposals to unbiased agencies; today, they must 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 national legislature that has historically debated war, Americans' rights, and broad economic policy-have become, in the words of Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), "mere errand boys for local government and constituents."
This year, Congress did not address the looming spending tidal wave of Social Security and Medicare but did decide that State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, could use some upgrades. Congress did not pass comprehensive immigration legislation, but it did decide that the public swimming pool in Banning, California, could use another $500,000 in renovations. Vital national issues go ignored by lawmakers who are instead focused on whether a certain intersection in Westchester County, New York, needs a traffic light.
Tending to such matters is why state and local governments exist. Perhaps Congress does not believe that local governments can handle the job; House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) 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 these projects are vital to "bringing home federal dollars." In reality, earmarks are carved out of funding streams that were already coming back to state and local governments and local organizations anyway. All of the earmarks taken from the $5 billion Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program for parks, pools, street signs, and community centers just reduce the pot of money left over to distribute to local governments for the projects they would choose, such as housing subsidies for poor families now stuck on the waiting list. But earmarks generate press releases and campaign contributions for lawmakers who have only tied strings to federal money that was already coming home.
A recent Wall Street Journal poll stated that voters' top domestic priority was banning pork projects, and the recent elections proved voters' contempt with business-as-usual in Washington. Congress should clean up waste and corruption by ending pork so that Members can focus on the vital national issues they were elected to address.
Brian M. Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, and Michelle Muccio is a Research Assistant, in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
 See Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., "Is Pork Barrel Spending Ready to Explode? The Anatomy of an Earmark," Heritage Foundation Webmemo No. 608, November 10, 2004, at www.heritage.org/Research/Budget/wm608.cfm.
Robert Novak, "Looking to Fry Pork," The Washington Post, January 30, 2006, p. A17.