Crazy pork barrel projects are one more exhibit of reckless spending
Watch any politician speak of balancing the government budget, and one of the first and most repeated phrases is related to “waste and abuse.” However, when the time comes to line up at the spending trough, nearly every politician is set to expend tax dollars, often on ridiculous projects. Considering all of the lip service from Democrats and Republicans on fiscal policy, why does so much of our federal funding go toward these expenditures that seem like random topics selected by dart throws?
The budget is broken, in part, because politicians count on two factors. First, voters do not pay very close attention. Second, when they do pay attention they want politicians to be doing something. Earmarking a half million dollars for a Sparta Teapot Museum or another $273,000 toward “fighting goth culture” might seem like exactly what your own member of Congress should be doing. But when you tally up all 435 representatives, 100 senators, and the needs of 50 states, the spending grows so large that ridiculous projects can be shoehorned into bills with little oversight.
Members of Congress love earmarks. They make great reelection fodder and present a stellar opportunity to get on the cover of the Palookaville Picayune. After all, if you have money from the other 434 districts for an in kind donation to your next term, then why would you not take advantage? Since a 2011 soft ban on earmarks, members of Congress switched from direct budget requests to using the federal bureaucracy to steer money to their districts. Spending bills include additional funds, which are divided at the discretion of government agencies as well as the White House.
The rotten culture on Capitol Hill seeps down Pennsylvania Avenue to a number of those agencies. Several operate under a “use it or lose it” budget, where there is a mad dash to spend before the fiscal year ends, because if they do not extinguish the last nickel, their budget will fall to the amount actually expended. As a result, when the fiscal year ends each September, agencies will blow through the rest of their budgets on suddenly “necessary” projects. These totaled nearly $100 billion in the last fiscal year, with over half spent in the last week of the calendar.
Of the 510,000 contracts signed during the last month of the fiscal year, agencies authorized a $9,000 leather chair, nearly $309,000 for alcohol, over $673,000 for golf carts, and $4 million for lobster and crab. Over a quarter of this spending spree went to the beltway. Many agencies, such as the Defense Department, know how to play this game well. Included on the tab for the last spending spree was $2 billion in guided missiles that our Pentagon officials just could not wait another fiscal year to unwrap.
It is absolutely critical for voters to understand not just why such out of control spending sprees occur every fiscal year, but also how they can be stopped. It is simple to argue for better civics education. After all, our current government, as the old maxim goes, is the one that we deserve. However, there are several actions the government could take to eliminate not only much of the waste, but also to restore some faith in Washington.
Such reforms include a strict cap on the dollar value of earmarks for each district. Why not just ban earmarks altogether? A annually audited system with a hard cap for each district would severely reduce the dollars spent compared to the current budget pool system. Another measure could be a 90 day justification system for agencies before receiving authorization to spend. Finally, there could be a reduction of discretion on spending by agencies. Congress loves to offshore its responsibility by “authorizing the secretary” to spend allocated funds. Instead, any projects costing more than $10 million should have approval by both chambers of Congress.
The unfortunate and established precedent in Congress to abrogate its responsibility is certainly a dream come true for government agencies. The sleeping watchdog of fiscal responsibility on Capitol Hill is the fault of members in both parties, who are happy enough to act as though they are doing something by passing blockbuster continuing spending resolutions instead of asserting the power of the purse granted by the Constitution.
If you are a Democrat who opposes President Trump, why are you okay with his executive power determining where Environmental Protection Agency funding goes? If you are a Republican who desires a balanced budget, this process is a complete disgrace. We would never allow our household budgets to be run this way and would hold an intervention for a friend or a relative with such poor fiscal habits. If you would stop such recklessness in your personal life, would you also stop it with your vote?
Kristin Tate is a libertarian writer and author of “How Do I Tax Thee? A Field Guide to the Great American Rip-Off.” Follow her on Twitter @KristinBTate.
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