The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Pork is Alive and Well

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The new fiscal year dawned on October 1 without a federal budget and the Congress graciously granted itself another six weeks to complete its constitutional mandate to pass all 12 appropriations bills.  If it feels like déjà vu, that’s because it is.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that from 1997 through 2006 “neither chamber has passed all the regular appropriations bills each year. For four of the past ten years, the House did not pass all the bills and, for seven of the past ten years, the Senate did not pass all of them.”

On the same day it passed the resolution to keep the government running at last year’s funding levels, Congress further reinforced its richly-deserved image as both dilatory and profligate by increasing the national debt ceiling, thus enabling the U.S. Treasury to borrow even more money to fund the increasingly bloated appropriations bills they can’t seem to finish.  So, what exactly is Congress doing with its time and the taxpayers’ money?

The Democratic leadership has been feverishly focused on how to continue to stuff tens of millions of dollars in pork-barrel projects into legislation, in contravention of its own newly-minted earmark disclosure and transparency rules.  In the House, Democratic leadership will not certify that all earmarks in tax and authorization bills will be publicly exposed and subject to challenge on the floor.  Republican leaders have filed a discharge petition for H. Res. 479, which would create such a guarantee.  House leaders are also trying to sell the snake oil that earmarks have been cut in half, when not a single conference report has been completed and no one knows what the final outcome will be.

Long known as being “porkier” than the House, Senate leadership is also parsing words to ensure that certain earmarks in conference reports cannot be challenged.  The staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the parliamentarian that his interpretation of the new rule permitting senators to raise a point of order for spending items added in conference does not apply to tax or authorization bills.  The Senate Rules Committee staff director contradicted that opinion, noting that the point of order was intended to apply to all bills.  The language being contested by Senator Reid was signed into law by President Bush on September 14 as part of S. 1, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

This dramatic reversal of fortune for earmark transparency became crystal clear when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) attempted to challenge $2 billion worth of earmarks that were added in conference to the 2008 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).  That bill, which had had $14 billion and $15 billion price tags in their respective Senate and House versions, emerged from the conference phase with 450 earmarks and a whopping $23 billion dollar final price tag attached to it!  Sen. DeMint’s challenge was rebuffed because Sen. Reid’s interpretation of the new rules permits senators to add pork with impunity to authorization bills such as WRDA and the 2005 highway bill, SAFTEA-LU, which had more than 6,300 earmarks worth $24 billion, including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska.  If another unnecessary and wasteful bridge to anywhere was added in the conference phase of any future authorization bill, it could not be objected to on the floor of the Senate, according to Leader Reid’s decision.

Probably the strangest case of non-appropriations earmarking occurred in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reauthorization. According to The New York Times, the House of Representatives “quietly funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to specific hospitals and health care providers under a bill passed this month to help low-income children.  Instead of naming the hospitals, the bill describes them in cryptic terms, so that identifying a beneficiary is like solving a riddle.  Most of the provisions were added to the bill at the request of Democratic lawmakers.”  Some hospitals were magically “relocated” from rural areas to a major city, such as New York, in order to obtain higher Medicare payments than those for which the facility would normally qualify.

It is premature to believe that the scourge of congressional earmarking has been restrained, let alone eradicated.  On the contrary, the new majority is already surreptitiously dismantling the very rules that it enacted in order to expose rampant pork-barrel practices, while cynically promoting themselves as champions of the taxpayers.  Their attempt at real earmark reform is a sham that will allow the pork to flow for many years to come.

  -- with Sen. Tom Coburn

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