Pork. You know, wasteful, pointless government spending on ridiculous boondoggles like a bridge to nowhere or the world’s most expensive bus stop ($1.5 million). In case you haven’t heard, the government has declared a war on pork, and it’s going about as well as the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on terror–
Responding to a remark in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, the Office of Management and Budget has created its own database of earmarks, those attachments to legislation which Congress makes to divert money to their own district, usually for projects which are questionable at best, wasteful at worst, and which nobody can review.
Pork, in other words.
President Bush called for Congress to “cut the number and cost of earmarks at least in half by the end of this session” in his address, noting that Congress rarely actually votes on them, and they don’t appear on the President’s desk.
OMB went farther, though, and published a database of earmarks from fiscal year 2005, which it’s using as a benchmark to determine whether the government has reached this “in half” goal. There are just two big problems with the earmarks database.
First, while earmarks in 2005 totaled some $19 billion, earmarks in 2006 topped $71 billion. The lower number is the one which is supposed to be halved.
Second, the database doesn’t say which Member of Congress attached the earmarks to legislation as it was passing through. According to Luke O’Brien from Wired News:
Reports that the Bush administration pressured OMB director Rob Portman to keep the names of lawmakers requesting earmarks under wraps were rife in the week leading up the database’s rollout on March 12. The administration wanted to limit information to reveal only reveal aggregate data by agency, no specifics. And that’s what it got. . . .
This anonymity is, at best, disingenuous. Last year, Bush signed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, a law that mandates that the recipients of earmarks be disclosed in the database (OMB has until Jan. 1 of 2008 to comply). Two mighty trough fillers, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — he of a “bridge to nowhere” infamy — secretly held up the legislation. Even so, the bill made it through. What it lacked, however, was a stipulation that lawmakers behind the earmarks also be named. — Threat Level
The point, Portman says, (PDF) is to create “a clear and transparent benchmark from which to judge the President’s goal of cutting the number and cost of earmarks by at least half.”
Of course, even with a moratorium on earmarks declared for nine of the eleven bills to which they’re regularly attached each year, Congress still managed to put over $13 billion in earmarks in the defense and homeland security appropriations bills, according to Citizens Against Government Waste’s 2007 Pig Book. They may have cut the number by more than half, but certainly not the money.
And, of course, if you think Congress gave up its pork-barrel projects for salmon fisheries and spinach farmers, you’ve got another thing coming.
“Even if [earmark] transparency leads to fewer earmarks, there are no promises that these projects won’t reappear in other ways and other places,” says Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You could call spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget, but they will remain the coin of the realm on K Street.”
Or, you could just not call them anything, and keep attaching them to committee reports while nobody’s looking. This, it seems, is what’s going on.
As our wise colleague Win Wheeler points out, it appears that earmarks were snuck into one of the first appropriations bills out of the gate, the emergency supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan which was passed in the House and the Senate and is now headed for conference. According to Win, language on the bill claims that there are no earmarks on it despite $60 million for salmon fisheries and $25 million for spinach farmers. The Congress put roughly $20 billion in additional spending on the supplemental, but claims in that bill that it: “contains no congressional earmarks.” It does appear that this language stretches the boundaries of reality. — Project on Government Oversight
And now that Congress can’t use the word “earmarks” for its pork-barrel projects anymore, please write your Member of Congress with your favorite suggestion for a word they should use to hide their pork from the people. With all due respect to the Cato Institute, “Happy Funtime Project” just doesn’t have the right
ring dull bureaucratic thud to it. The person who submits the best suggestion might just get your very own earmark Happy Funtime Project.