Congress still pulling pork from the barrel


A new analysis of congressional spending shows that lawmakers still have too big of an appetite for pork.
The final count on earmarks for fiscal 2010 shows Congress spent $15.9 billion on no-bid contracts, up slightly from $15.6 billion last year. Spending rose even though the total number of earmarks dropped, from 10,363 to 9,413.
At first it appeared that Democratic leaders had reduced pork spending significantly. But the independent watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense conducted a thorough study of both years’ spending bills, eliminating certain accounting tricks, to come up with a more accurate picture.
The analysis shows that spending on earmarks is creeping up again, despite a pledge by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) to crack down on the habit that is too often abused.
Earmarks are individual projects inserted into spending bills by a senator or representative to benefit his or her home state or district. Sometimes they’re worthwhile; often they are not.
Too often, earmarks are advanced to benefit a lawmaker’s reelection, without regard to the actual need for a project. For example, the Pentagon has received about $20 billion in earmarks in recent years for military projects that the Defense Department neither requested nor wanted.
Three congressional leaders this year alone — Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) — garnered more than $200 million in earmarks for their districts.
But they weren’t the “winners” in this dubious spending derby. Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) led all lawmakers, with $497.5 million in earmarks. Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D., Hawaii) was next with $392 million.
Eight of the top 10 earmarkers in the Senate are Democrats. But none of the senators from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Delaware made the top 10.
In the House, Rep. Bill Young (R., Fla.) led all lawmakers, with $90.4 million in hometown spending projects. The late Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) topped Democrats, with $82.4 million for his Johnstown-area district. The only other lawmaker from our region who made the House top 10 list is low-profile Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R., N.J.), who was ninth, with $39.2 million.
But local lawmakers did get in a multitude of projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), secured $2.4 million for MCA Solutions Inc. to conduct naval research and development. Rep. John Adler (D., N.J.) sponsored a $1.6 million earmark for defense contractor Lockheed Martin in Moorestown.
And New Jersey’s Democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, cosponsored a $750,000 grant to Rowan University in Glassboro for research into turning algae into ethanol.
Republicans have become increasingly critical of earmarks, now that they’re the minority party. But the doling out of earmarks soared when the GOP controlled Congress; Democrats have reduced spending on these projects by about 25 percent since then.
Democrats also have succeeded in bringing more transparency to the earmarking process, and requiring sponsors of these projects to identify themselves.
Congress has taken tentative steps to wean itself from this fattening habit in the last few years, but lawmakers need to try a more restrictive diet.