When Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) released the first Congressional Pig Book in 1991, the group was a lonely voice in the pork-barrel wilderness. There was only modest objection to the 546 projects worth $3.2 billion, and “earmark” was virtually unknown. The one constant since then has been the undisputed reign of the king of pork, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has brought home more than $3 billion in projects.
After Republicans took over Congress in 1994, pork-barrel projects started to be used as a currency of reelection. Over the following decade, they became a currency of corruption, and the explosion in earmarks to their peak at $29 billion in 2006 helped erase the Republican majority. The 9,129 projects in the 2010 Congressional Pig Book represent a 10.2 percent decline from the 10,160 projects identified in fiscal year 2009, and the $16.5 billion in cost is a 15.5 percent decrease from the $19.6 billion in pork in fiscal year 2009.
The reforms that were adopted when Democrats took over Congress in 2006 can be attributed to many years of work exposing earmarks, especially the outpouring of public outrage over projects such as $50,000,000 for an indoor rainforest in Iowa and $500,000 for a teapot museum in North Carolina.
The changes include greater transparency, with the names of members of Congress first appearing next to their requested projects in 2008, letters of request that identify where and why the money will be spent, and the elimination of earmarks named after sitting members of Congress in the House.
For fiscal year 2011, House Democrats are not requesting earmarks that go to for-profit entities; House Republicans are not requesting any earmarks (although there are both exceptions and definitional questions). Not surprisingly, the Senate has rejected any limits on earmarks. None of these reforms are sufficient to eliminate all earmarks, so CAGW expects there will still be a 2011 Congressional Pig Book.
The transparency changes are far from perfect. The fiscal year 2010 Defense Appropriations Act contained 35 anonymous projects worth $6 billion, or 59 percent of the total pork in the bill. Out of the 9,129 projects in the 2010 Congressional Pig Book, there were 9,048 requested projects worth $10 billion and 81 anonymous projects worth $6.5 billion. These projects included $2.5 billion for C-17s and $465 million for an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter.
The latest installment of CAGW’s 20-year exposé of pork-barrel spending includes $4,481,000 for wood utilization research, $400,000 for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, $300,000 for Carnegie Hall in New York City, and $200,000 for the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia. Two of these projects were among the 14 winners of CAGW’s “Oinker Awards.”
Pork is not only wasteful, it is also inequitably distributed. Some states receive far more than other states. Hawaii led the nation with $251 per capita ($326 million), while Wyoming received $12.28 per capita ($6.68 million.) The average for all states was $27.36 per capita.
All of the items in the Congressional Pig Book meet at least one of CAGW’s seven criteria: requested by only one chamber of Congress, not specifically authorized, not competitively awarded, not requested by the president, greatly exceeds the president’s budget request or the previous year’s funding, not the subject of congressional hearings, and serves only a local or special interest.
Americans continue to face an uncertain economic future with a $12.8 trillion national debt and the prospect of trillion-dollar budget deficits for the foreseeable future. Even though pork-barrel earmarks account for a small portion of discretionary spending, they are fraught with waste, fraud, and abuse. While increased transparency and reduced expenditures on pork-barrel projects are steps in the right direction, taxpayers will only be elated when all earmarks are eliminated.