Think the debate over congressional earmark spending has gone away? Hardly. Count on thousands more unauthorized earmark projects being slipped into spending bills without formal review this year, eliciting public rebuke over how billions are spent on pet projects while the budget gushes red ink. For the most part, though, Congress will thumb its nose at earmark opponents, figuring the storm of public discontent will pass -- again.
In a slow economy, congressional supporters will say earmark projects should be seen as small jobs programs, and they'll portray them as "targeted" stimulus efforts. Look for thousands of earmarks in the next defense and transportation spending bills, in particular. Each is a magnet for hometown projects.
The total amount of unauthorized earmarks in the 2009 spending bills, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Against Waste in Government, is $19.6 billion for 10,160 projects, including several of dubious merit -- $4 million for conservation programs on the land of the old Tiger baseball stadium in Detroit, which was abandoned by the team in 1999 and demolished last year; $2 million for a Pleasure Beach water taxi service in Connecticut, next to the New London Country Club and $1.8 million for manure management research in Ames, Iowa.
There'll always be examples of pork projects that cause head scratching. The majority of the projects do have some worth but are less colorful to ponder. Most are quickly defended by sponsors as necessary and valuable. They are not all bad, despite the thumping of critics for the outrageous examples of pork that deserve thumping.
In total, earmarks amount to about 0.05% of the budget. That's far less in taxpayer cost than say, for instance, mismanaged defense contracts or annual Medicare fraud and abuse. The whole debate over earmarks is almost a smokescreen; there are many larger challenges for Washington to tackle than hometown projects sought by lawmakers eager to please constituents.
Earmark champions. One reason earmarks won't die is that the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations panels and their committee members are strong defenders of the practice, which they refer to as "congressionally directed spending." They say it's more appropriate for Congress to decide on specific projects than to let nameless federal bureaucrats determine what hometown projects get funded. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HA, and Rep. David Obey, D-WI, will be front and center in the earmark tussle this year. So too will their Republican counterparts, Sen. Thad Cochran, MS, and Rep. Jerry Lewis, CA, who will shepherd their own and other GOP member requests through the appropriations process.
Inouye, 84, succeeds the ailing Bob Byrd, 91, of West Virginia, himself an earmark icon for his state for decades. (Last year, Hawaii was second only behind Alaska in per capita earmarks approved; West Virginia was fifth.) Among Inouye's projects for fiscal 2009: $469,000 for a fruit fly monitoring facility, $285,000 for rural computer training in the Aloha islands and $10 million for the long decommissioned U.S.S. Missouri battleship on whose deck the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Among Obey's earmarks: $950,000 for ship ballast water research and $277,000 for potato pest management and $333,000 for employment training for Goodwill Industries in Milwaukee.
Figure there will be fewer congressional earmark projects in 2010 -- maybe 7,000 instead of 10,000 -- but not a wholesale gutting of the practice. Chairmen like Inouye and Obey will make sure of it, helping out themselves and fellow lawmakers. And they have the backing of leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, NV, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, CA, both of whom regard as sacrosanct the right of Congress to decide how and where money is spent.
President Obama will put up with it even if he publicly laments Congress's annual addiction to pork projects. He needs lawmakers help to move his ambitious agenda. Giving a wink and a nod to a little pork in a $3.5 trillion budget is a small price, even if some questionable projects slip through. In Washington, it's part of what greases the wheels of the legislative machinery.