Economy & Budget

Government pork is alive and well

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Pork-barrel spending is alive and well in Washington, despite claims to the contrary. For the fourth time since Congress enacted an earmark moratorium that began in fiscal year 2011, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has unearthed earmarks in the appropriations bills.

{mosads}The “2016 Congressional Pig Book” exposes 123 earmarks in fiscal 2016, an increase of 17.1 percent from the 105 in fiscal 2015. The cost of earmarks in fiscal 2016 is $5.1 billion, an increase of 21.4 percent from the $4.2 billion in fiscal 2015. While the increase in cost over one year is disconcerting, the two-year rise of 88.9 percent over the $2.7 billion in fiscal 2014 is downright disturbing.

In each of the years following the establishment of the moratorium, there have been fewer earmarks than in the peak years, but far more money was spent on average for each earmark and no detailed description was provided. For instance, legislators added 15 earmarks costing $549.6 million for the fiscal 2016 Army Corps of Engineers in the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. These earmarks correspond to 482 earmarks costing $541.7 million in fiscal 2010.

In other words, the average dollar amount for the Corps earmarks in fiscal 2016 was $36.6 million compared to $1.1 billion in fiscal 2010. The “Congressionally Directed Spending” section at the end of the fiscal 2010 bill contained the names of the members of Congress requesting each project and its location, as required by the transparency rules. In stark contrast, the fiscal 2016 earmarks, which cost $7.9 million more than the fiscal 2010 projects, contained no such data and simply created a pool of money to be distributed at a later date without any specific information about the eventual recipients.

Members of Congress will argue that their standards differ from the earmark criteria used in the “Pig Book,” and that the appropriations bills are earmark-free according to their definition. However, the difference in the definition of earmarks between CAGW and Congress has existed since the first “Pig Book” in 1991. The pork-free claim can also be challenged based on the inclusion of projects that have appeared in past appropriations bills as earmarks.

The earmarks in the appropriations bills enacted since the initiation of the moratorium raise disturbing questions for the future, particularly because representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle continue to clamor for their revival.

One of the most frequently used arguments in favor of earmarks is that they would help pass certain spending bills. In the past, however, members have voted for excessively expensive legislation because they have received a few earmarks, which means the moratorium has helped restrain spending. A return to rampant earmarking would inevitably increase the risk of corruption and the potential for an explosion in expenditures compared to current levels.

There are also concerns regarding which legislators benefit most in a system with openly incorporated earmarks. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained on May 7, 2014, regarding those making the case for a return to earmarks: “The problem with all their arguments is: The more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”

Earmarks create a few winners (appropriators, special interests and lobbyists) and a great many losers (taxpayers). They contribute to the deficit directly, by tacking on extra funding, and indirectly, by attracting votes to costly legislation that might not otherwise pass. Earmarks corrupt democracy by eclipsing more important matters in the minds of legislators and voters.

The latest installment of CAGW’s 24-year expose of pork-barrel spending includes $40 million to upgrade the M1 Abrams tank, which is opposed by the Pentagon; $8 million for the aquatic plant control program; $5.9 million for the East-West Center, an earmark championed by Senate Appropriations Committee member Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii); and $5 million for the Maritime Guaranteed Loan (Title XI) account, a program with a remarkably long and sordid history.

The 2016 pork is the latest addition to the total of 110,442 earmarks since CAGW released the first “Congressional Pig Book” in 1991. The cost to taxpayers has now reached $323 billion. The publication of the “2016 Congressional Pig Book” is the latest reminder that earmarks should be permanently banned.

Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tags Appropriations Earmark John McCain Pork pork-barrel spending

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