Pork-barrel spending has been cut in half after skyrocketing for seven straight years, according to the latest CAGW (Citizens Against Government Waste) Congressional Pig Book. Here’s how it happened, and why budget hawks shouldn’t be ordering champagne for the victory party just yet.
In late November of last year, as the GOP was recovering from the pounding it took in the elections, Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) thwarted the lame-duck majority’s attempt to pass nine pork-laden appropriations bills in its last remaining weeks. Republican spending barons like former House Appropriations Committee chairman Jerry Lewis (R., Calif.) were furious, because they saw the bills as their last chance to fund pet projects and trade favors. But Coburn and DeMint promised to bring the Senate to a standstill by putting every earmark to a vote, so the Republicans turned the task of funding the federal government for fiscal year 2007 over to the incoming Democrats.
Having just won control of Congress by campaigning against the profligacy and corruption of the Republicans, tackling the nine GOP spending bills with all their rotten pork seemed about as appealing to the Democrats as diving into a dumpster behind a slaughterhouse. So instead they passed what’s called a continuing resolution. Lawmakers use continuing resolutions to maintain funding at the previous year’s levels rather than set new levels, which keeps the federal government from shutting down when Congress can’t agree on spending. When partisan rancor reaches the level of your typical Anna Nicole Smith paternity hearing, Congress might pass a continuing resolution that covers an entire year.
That’s what the Democrats decided to do — they passed a full-year continuing resolution covering the nine remaining appropriations bills for FY07 (the GOP had managed to pass the other two, Defense and Homeland Security, in 2006). But they added a brilliant twist. Democratic leaders got new House Appropriations chairman David Obey (D., Wisc.) and his Senate counterpart Robert Byrd (D., W.V., and the King of Pork himself) to agree to suspend all earmarks in the giant bill. In other words, all the money earmarked for pork projects in 2006, while still in this year’s budget, will be available to executive-branch officials and governors to distribute through a merit-based or competitive process instead. Lawmakers can’t force them to set aside $10 or $15 million for a particular campaign donor or golf buddy.
The Democrats were hailed for doing more to wipe out pork in one month than the Republicans had done in eight years. But what happened can be likened to a football game: Conservatives Coburn and DeMint made the forgotten goal-line defensive stand. The Democrats scored the touchdown and took credit for the win.
The bigger problem, of course, isn’t about who gets the credit. It’s about what happens when Congress takes up new appropriations bills for FY08 in a few months. “Our concern is really next year when they have all those bills up again,” CAGW president Thomas Schatz tells National Review Online. “The Appropriations subcommittees are already asking members for their lists of earmark requests. Requests are due in by March 30th, and we’d like to see what those are.”
The House and Senate have both passed rules requiring the disclosure of which earmarks are requested by which members, but those rules only apply to earmarks that are successfully added to bills or conference reports. “We need to know what didn’t get added. We need to know when someone asks for an earmark and doesn’t get it,” Schatz says, for two reasons: “What basis did they use to determine what did get funded?” And also to confirm “what we already know, which is that most of them go to [members of the appropriations committees].” The idea is that publicizing the appropriators’ greater share of earmarks will anger other lawmakers and build support for curbing the practice.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe any non-appropriator needs more convincing after reading the Congressional Pig Book. Though their targets were reduced to just the Defense and Homeland Security bills, members still found ways to justify a wide variety of projects. Points for creativity must be awarded to Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), who asked for $1.6 million for research to improve the shelf life of vegetables. “This project will help our troops in the field get fresh tomatoes…” is how she justified earmarking Defense funds for the project. Why stop there? Why not several million more to develop mold-resistent bread and wipe out hog cholera? Is Murray only committed to helping our troops in the field get one-third of a BLT?
Murray’s patriotism aside, the amount of pork-barrel spending attached to the Defense and Homeland Security bills fell by about 28 percent and 10 percent respectively, indicating that fiscal conservatives have made considerable headway in the fight against waste, fraud and abuse. Groups like Porkbusters and CAGW have raised awareness, legislators like Coburn and DeMint have blocked harmful bills and the Bush administration has thrown its weight behind reformers. But this year’s substantial drop in overall pork-barrel spending represents an unusual confluence of political pressures, not a corresponding change in attitudes on Capitol Hill. The appropriators will be back.