Illustration by James Serafino

Swearing off pork

Politics | Republican lawmakers are vowing to end earmarks, but loopholes are creeping up and old habits die hard

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

WASHINGTON-For the last five years, Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona has highlighted an "egregious earmark of the week." He likes to pick on these pork projects with a pun. Take, for example, his response to the $2 million directed to acquire the Ice Age Scenic Trail in Wisconsin: "This mammoth earmark is woolly uncalled for."

With House Republicans promising an earmark moratorium, Flake has retired his earmark pun routine. But he's going out with a bang, asking America to vote on the most egregious earmark. His top 10 list includes $940,000 for the Adler Planetarium's Space Exploration Center in Chicago: "Congress continues to Klingon to earmarks." And "this earmark really shucks" for $446,000 spent on oyster post-harvest treatment in Florida. And for $143,000 sent to New York's American Ballet Theatre: "Congress continues to spend way tutu much."

But lawmaker addiction to bringing home the federal bacon is no laughing matter: The more than 9,000 earmarks, or lawmaker-directed expenditures, approved last year came with a nearly $17 billion price tag. The practice has spread quickly: In 1991 there were just 546 earmark projects worth $3.2 billion.

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What's worse, a recent study found that lawmakers actually requested (but did not get) 39,294 earmarks worth more than $130 billion for the current fiscal year. "Think about the time that's wasted in the Congress handling 39,000 earmarks when you could be expending that same effort asking, 'Is this program constitutional? Is this program effective?'" said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "We never look at any of that. We just see a problem and create another program."

Voters finally seemed to shout "enough" last November, and the "no more earmarks" bandwagon suddenly got more crowded. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in a floor speech delivered just moments after the Senate began its first post-election session, announced that he would no longer indulge in the practice. "I don't apologize for them," McConnell said of the $468 million in earmarks he directed to Kentucky in the last three years. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of control spending."

Soon after McConnell's change of heart, Senate Republicans in November approved a two-year moratorium on congressional pork starting this year. The overall Senate, however, failed to pass a binding three-year ban on earmarks by a 56 to 39 vote that included 8 Republicans voting to protect earmarks. Vowing that no earmark-laden bills will pass the House, Republicans, now in the majority, also embraced the earmark ban for the new 112th Congress.

"That's a new paradigm that the goal of the appropriators is to cut spending, not spend money," said Zach Wamp, a Republican from Tennessee who just finished serving 16 years in the House. "The establishment, the old bulls in the Congress, may have lost their luster and influence."

But some think that targeting earmarks is merely a symbolic distraction from larger spending issues: The total amount spent on earmarks represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget and about 1 percent of the deficit. "Sometimes there's too much focus on the earmarks," said Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute, a libertarian group. "If we stop with the earmark battle and say, 'Mission accomplished,' then the victory will have been an illusion."

Others warn that giving up earmarks would threaten the constitutional balance of power-abdicating to unelected bureaucrats in executive branch agencies the ability to control where federal money goes. "It would be nothing short of criminal to go through all the trouble of electing great, new anti-establishment conservatives, only to be politically correct and have them cede to Obama their constitutional power of the purse," warned Republican earmark supporter Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

But a Harvard Business School study published last summer showed that earmarks, no matter what kind, crowd out private investment. The researchers looked at states that received a flood of earmarks after a local lawmaker became chair of a committee. The study found that local businesses cut investments and curtailed employment as a result. Generally, when the spurt of federal spending slowed to a trickle after a state lost a lawmaker as a committee chair, private investments returned.

Coburn adds that earmarks create a dysfunctional culture of federal waste. Chasing money for pet projects in their districts, lawmakers are obsessed with local issues at the expense of national ones. Meanwhile lobbyists foster Washington's horse-trading mentality, giving lawmakers campaign cash in exchange for special projects. "Earmarks are the gateway drug to overspending," Coburn told me. "They are what grease the skids to get people to vote for a bill they otherwise wouldn't vote for because they have an earmark in the bill. It becomes coercive."


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