View a list of pork projects in the FY 2009 omnibus.
Even a recession and record $1.4 trillion budget deficit has not
altered Congress's business-as-usual culture of spending and pork.
While families and entrepreneurs are responsibly bringing their own
budgets under control, Congress is spending and earmarking as if
nothing has changed in the economy. The House has already
passed-and the Senate will soon take up-a mammoth FY 2009 omnibus
appropriation bill that:
- Provides an 8 percent discretionary spending hike for the
second consecutive year;
- Combines with the "stimulus" bill for a staggering 80
percent increase in these discretionary programs;
- May contribute to a permanent $2,000 per-household tax
- Contains 9,287 pork projects at a cost of nearly $13 billion;
- Likely terminates the Washington, D.C., school voucher program,
removing 1,715 low-income students from their current schools.
This bill represents nearly everything Democrats had criticized
about the earlier Republican Congresses. It forces lawmakers to
vote quickly on a bloated package combining nine separate
appropriations bills. It irresponsibly expands the already-record
budget deficit. And despite strongly worded proclamations about
cleaning up Washington, the 2009 appropriation bills will have the
second-most earmarks in history. During this time of recession and
skyrocketing budget deficits, America cannot afford budgets that
continue to spend and earmark as usual.
The omnibus spending bill increases discretionary spending by 8
percent for the second consecutive year. But that is only part of
the story. These same discretionary programs have already received
much of the colossal $1.1 trillion stimulus bill enacted recently.
Counting those funds, this omnibus spending will finalize a
staggering 80 percent spending increase for these programs in
2009-from $378 billion to $680 billion (see Chart 1). This
spending binge is virtually unprecedented in American history.
Domestic discretionary programs-the subject of most of the
omnibus bill-have not exactly been starved in the past, either.
From 2001 through 2008, these programs grew 23 percent faster than
inflation, due in part to large increases for education (35
percent), health research (37 percent), and veterans' benefits (54
percent). Clearly, these programs do not need even
more budget increases. Yet rather than ask federal agencies to join
the American people in some recessionary belt-tightening, Congress
expanded these programs by 8 percent last year and is in the
process of adding another 8 percent this year-not even counting the
historic 71 percent hike resulting from the "stimulus."
Some insist that this "stimulus" spending will be only
temporary. Yet it is difficult to imagine lawmakers allowing
programs like Pell grants and health spending to return to their
original levels in two years. Consequently, much of this 80 percent
discretionary spending surge is likely to eventually become part of
the permanent discretionary spending baseline. This would
permanently raise spending-and therefore taxes-by over $2,000 per
Regrettably, the omnibus bill does not offset this new spending.
In failing to offer spending reductions, congressional
- At least $55 billion in annual program overpayments;
- $60 billion for corporate welfare;
- $123 billion for programs for which government auditors can
find no evidence of success;
- $140 billion in potential budget savings identified in the
Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) "Budget Options" books;
- Massive program duplication, such as the 342 economic
development programs, the 130 programs serving the disabled, the
130 programs serving at-risk youth, and the 90 early childhood
Unfortunately, taxpayers should perhaps expect more of the same
over the next few years. President Obama has already signed into
law a large expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance
Program (SCHIP), as well as a budget-busting $1.1 trillion
"stimulus" bill. Many of the "stimulus" provisions-such as
education, infrastructure, and the weakening of the 1996 welfare
reforms-are long-term government expansions that have nothing to do
with immediate stimulus. President Obama has not yet offered the
tough decisions he has promised.
Although Democrats strongly criticized the proliferation of
earmarks under Republican rule, they have made no serious efforts
to pare them back. The omnibus bill spends $12.8 billion on 9,287
earmarks. When combined with the early 2009 spending
bills ($16.1 billion spent on 2,627 earmarks), the 2009 total
comes to 11,914 earmarks at a cost of $28.9 billion. This
represents the second most earmarks-and the second highest cost-in
Clearly, the earmark culture has not been swept away. The
Washington Post recently summarized a Taxpayers for Common
Sense study that found that "60 percent of the members of the House
Armed Services Committee who arranged earmarks also received
campaign contributions from the companies that received the
funding. Almost all the members of the committee received campaign
contributions from companies that got earmarks this year." And
yet despite repeated scandals-some resulting in lawmakers being
sentenced to prison-the number of annual earmarks continues to
increase. Lawmakers have even rejected a modest proposal to
temporarily suspend earmarks until the process can be cleaned up.
In addition to waste and corruption, lawmakers' obsession with
pork raises a larger concern about the role of Congress. 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."
The American people elected their federal lawmakers to focus on
national priorities like recession, job losses, the financial
collapse, and the war on terrorism. And yet these lawmakers failed
to pass appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year and
instead spent a substantial portion of 2008 securing pork projects
- $1,049,000 to combat Mormon Crickets in Utah;
- $332,500 to build a school sidewalk in Franklin, Texas;
- $225,000 for Everybody Wins!;
- $200,000 for a tattoo removal program in Mission Hills,
- $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody,
- $237,500 for theater renovation in Merced, California; and
- $75,000 for the Totally Teen Zone in Albany, Georgia.
View a list of pork projects in the FY 2009 omnibus.
Tending to such matters is why state and local governments
exist. Perhaps Congress does not believe that local governments can
handle the job; former 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, many 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 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. And by diverting transportation
dollars into projects that are often frivolous and having nothing
to do with reducing congestion or improving mobility, earmarks
starve higher-priorities like road maintenance and construction,
which in turn forces Congress to increase spending to replenish
that funding. But earmarks generate press releases and campaign
contributions for lawmakers who have only tied strings to federal
money that was already coming home.
Last year, President Bush signed an executive order mandating
that federal agencies ignore earmarks that appear in non-binding
conference reports and instead implement only those in the bill
text. That executive order currently remains in
effect. President Obama, who campaigned on ending politics-as-usual
in Washington, could strike a blow to the earmark culture by simply
leaving this executive order in place. Doing so would eliminate all
earmarks that Congress has not incorporated by reference into the
omnibus bill text. He should go one step further and veto any
omnibus bill that explicitly has earmarks.
No End in Sight
In the past six months, Congress has enacted a $700 billion
financial bailout and a $1.1 trillion stimulus. It has also
expanded health insurance subsidies and is considering an expensive
homeowner bailout. Now, with an 8 percent discretionary spending
hike, Congress has seemingly lost the ability to say "no." Runaway
spending and budget deficits threaten to steeply increase interest
rates and eventually result in painful tax increases. If Congress
cannot even reduce the number of pork projects in this environment,
there is little reason to believe it is ready to make the truly
difficult choices on large programs like Social Security, Medicare,
and Medicaid. If Congress cannot strip the unnecessary earmarks and
pare back the spending increase in this omnibus bill, the President
should show the nation he is well prepared to use his veto pen.
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.
Research Assistant Steve Keen and intern Daniel DeJaegher
contributed to the researching of this paper.