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Schatz: Earmarks Should Not Be Revived, Redefined

Every year since 1991, Citizens Against Government Waste has published a little pink book that federal lawmakers really hoped taxpayers and the media wouldn’t read: the Congressional Pig Book. The press conference announcing the publication was almost as popular as the book itself because of the oinking pigs packed into the room (real live animals, not appropriators).

This year, thanks to the Congressional moratorium on earmarks, one of CAGW’s goals in creating the first list of pork-barrel spending has been achieved — there will not be a 2011 Congressional Pig Book.

Congress has kicked its piggy habit … or has it?

It is fortunate that CAGW’s crack research team didn’t retire because many Members of Congress, including some well-known fiscal conservatives, have been calling for restoring or redefining earmarks.

Rep. Michele Bachmann became one of the first to voice her support for earmarks when she claimed transportation projects shouldn’t count. This startling reversal came on Nov. 15, less than two weeks after the midterm elections that gave House Republicans a majority. The Minnesota Republican introduced legislation on March 1 that championed a local bridge project.

Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) were named CAGW’s “Porkers of the Month” for December 2010, after they said they would not abide by the Senate Republican earmark moratorium (which was adopted by the entire chamber in January).

As the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe joined with Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to write a letter to Senators asking them for “specific projects and programmatic requests you would like considered for inclusion” in the Water Resources Development Act. This language sounds suspiciously like a request for earmarks.

House Members are pressing for a more exact definition of an earmark, and others are going directly to the agencies to petition for their pet projects. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) admitted, “The appropriators are going to be OK because we know people in agencies and so on.” These hidden contacts are known as “lettermarking” or “phonemarking.” At least in regard to redefining earmarks, House Republican leaders have repeatedly said they will reject any such effort.

Since 1991, CAGW has identified 109,978 earmarks totaling $307 billion nestled in the annual appropriations bills. Total earmarks started at 546 in 1991 at a cost of $3.1 billion and ended, for now, at 9,129 in 2010 at a cost of $16.5 billion.

If the efforts to circumvent the moratorium are successful, it will be difficult to discern the number and cost of earmarks. Since 2007 (after years of pressure), earmarks became more visible to taxpayers (although not always attributed to a Member of Congress as required by the rules) and accessible to anyone who could download an appropriations bill or pick up a CAGW Congressional Pig Book. The earmark process now, it seems, is going back underground, which doesn’t say a lot about Congress’ putative commitment to transparency and fiscal restraint. It says a lot more about the depth of its pork addiction.

U.S. taxpayers now face a $14.4 trillion debt, and the deficit for fiscal 2011 is projected to be $1.6 trillion, the largest in history. Indeed, February’s deficit — at $222.5 billion — was the largest ever recorded for a single month. That figure is only $26 billion less than the entire deficit for fiscal 2006. Overspending has consequences: Ratings agencies have threatened to downgrade the nation’s debt because they are not sure policymakers have the stomach or the backbone to do what is necessary to bring the debt and the deficit down. Failure to act could have dramatic consequences on other nations’ willingness to continue to buy U.S. debt instruments.

If lawmakers’ calls for reviving earmarks are any indicator, there is good reason to worry. It boggles the mind that in the face of such a deep hole and dire consequences, lawmakers want to return to porking up the budget with projects such as wood utilization research, swine odor and manure management, filmmaking in Hollywood, and music education programs at Carnegie Hall.

It is time they stop the shenanigans and end earmarks for real and for good.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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