How Pork Corrupts Congress

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

How Pork Corrupts Congress

Jan 25, 2006 3 min read

Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Pork-barrel spending, whether it's for therapeutic horseback riding, the Grammy Foundation, and combating teen "goth" culture, in Blue Springs, Mo., regularly leaves taxpayers cringing. But the recent indictment of Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has spotlighted pork's larger dangers: More than merely wasteful, pork invites corruption, encourages big government, distracts lawmakers from vigorous oversight, and surrenders lawmaker independence.

First, a definition. Originally, lawmakers would fund government grant programs and then let federal and state agencies select individual grant recipients through a competitive application process or by formula. Now, Congress actually determines, within the legislation, who will receive government grants by "earmarking" money to specific recipients. Earmarks are also known as "pork projects" because they bring the bacon home to districts.

Since 1996, the number of annual pork projects in appropriations bills has skyrocketed from 958 to 13,999 - at an annual cost of $27 billion. Additionally, the pork count in the six-year highway bills surged from 10 in 1982, to 6,371 in last year's bill (including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere"). While many of these grants are obviously wasteful and unnecessary, even the productive grants raise the question of why the U.S. Congress should micromanage local decisions such as where to build a traffic light in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.

In addition, the practice of allowing lawmakers to individually decide who receives federal grants invites corruption. Congressional e-mail messages made public show that, on certain bills, each lawmaker is given his or her own individual pot of tax dollars (often more than $20 million apiece, based on lawmaker rank) to distribute as he or she wishes. Not surprisingly, much of this money goes to the highest bidder. While explicit trades of campaign donations for pork are difficult to prove, the link between the two is no secret. These are your tax dollars being auctioned for campaign donations.

Lobbyists serve as well-paid middlemen bringing businesses, organizations and local governments to the lawmakers who can provide them with earmarks. So confident are these lobbyists of their access and power that some have reportedly gone to local governments and virtually guaranteed that, for a large fee, they can steer federal grants their way. Not surprisingly, from 2000 through 2004, the number of appropriations lobbyists surged from 1,865 to 3,523, and lobbying became the easiest way in Washington to become a millionaire.

The task of selecting a share of the 14,000 annual pork projects has become an all-encompassing endeavor for many congressional offices. Gathering earmark requests, meeting with lobbyists, and working to secure a coveted seat on the pork-writing Appropriations Committee leaves little time for the traditional congressional duties of overseeing government and reforming outdated programs. Thus, in recent years, layers of government waste have gone virtually ignored, and bloated agencies have failed to deliver basic services.

Finally, pork leads to bigger government. Lawmakers who come to Washington to scale back government quickly get hooked on pork by their senior colleagues, who assert that re-election can be won only through the massive campaign contributions and "bring home the bacon" press releases that pork provides. And if pork-barrel spending will buy votes back home, wouldn't an expensive farm bill also buy rural votes? And perhaps a Medicare drug benefit will buy senior votes?

Even pork-seeking lawmakers who otherwise retain their commitment to fiscal responsibility surrender their independence to vote against runaway spending. Bill writers often incorporate only the pork projects of lawmakers who commit to voting for the entire spending bill (which makes pork a key way for senior lawmakers to control the votes of their junior colleagues.) Consequently, lawmakers vote for massive, wasteful $700 billion spending bills simply to guarantee $1 million for a bridge in their district, and the House passes a notorious, pork-laden highway bill with the "Bridge to Nowhere" by an overwhelming 412 to 8 margin. Only a handful of lawmakers resist earmarks.

What's the solution? Lawmakers assert that they, rather than federal bureaucrats and state governments, are qualified to distribute government grants in their districts. If so, why not dissolve the federal bureaucracy and relevant state agencies? Lobbying reform is also helpful, but as long as lawmakers continue to distribute government grants, organizations will find a way to lobby and financially influence them.

A better idea: A one-year pork moratorium, during which time Congress enact a permanent prohibition against legislation specifying which businesses, organizations or locations will receive federal grants. Then, grant-seekers will actually have to justify their projects to federal and state agencies, and lawmakers will be free to oversee and rein in runaway government.

Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire