A dog-bite prevention website. Vermont puppet shows. Researching the bomb-sniffing capabilities of elephants.
Those are just some government spending projects labeled “wasteful” in this Congress by a crop of lawmakers who continue to take on the mantle of pork busters four years after Ohio Republican John A. Boehner banned earmarks after he took the speaker’s gavel in 2011.
Former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., long the standard bearer of the waste-watching movement, told CQ Roll Call that despite the moratorium on traditional earmarks, billions are still spent on duplicative programs — what he considers the largest earmark.
“It’s great to bring it up and raise the issue, but if the issue is raised and nobody eliminates the problem that’s creating the waste, you haven’t done anything,” Coburn said. He’s now working to organize a convention of states to restrict the power of the federal government and is considering continuing his spending reports from outside the Capitol. “We’re talking about symptoms, but we’re not fixing the disease.”
The cure is to have an “Appropriations Committee that doesn’t allow that kind of crap to continue.”
There are four Republican waste watchers in the Senate carrying the torch and making Coburn “proud” these days: Arizona’s Jeff Flake and John McCain, Dan Coats of Indiana and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Waste-report season is now in full bloom. Coats last week spoke on suspicious spending by defense contractors, while Flake released a dinosaur-themed report featuring legacy earmarks he dubbed “Jurassic Pork.”
For effect, Flake swept through the Senate Press Galleries distributing pork sandwiches to reporters. (He graciously offered chicken to those with an aversion to pork.) In May, McCain, Flake and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania appeared with “Pigfoot,” the mascot of Citizens Against Government Waste, to highlight their annual “Pig Book.”
This week, Paul took the role of Senate sommelier by highlighting grants for the Washington state wine industry, asking the question: What wine pairing goes best with waste?
And for the piscivore palate left unsatisfied by a diet of only wine and waste, McCain served the main course last month when he fought in vain to end a catfish-inspection program as an amendment to a trade bill.
McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has a bit of an advantage over the others in that his chairmanship gives him a larger staff, some of whom are dedicated to investigations. Like Coburn, he’s long railed against what he considers wasteful spending and earmarks.
He told CQ Roll Call he has found shaming to be an effective strategy.
“It puts the heat on these bureaucracies,” McCain said. “It leads to legislation. It’s really important.”
Flake — whose efforts date back to around 2003, when he became a relentless opponent of earmarking in a House nearly consumed by the practice — agreed public humiliation can lead to change. One of Flake’s favorite pelts was an earmark for Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., for a local jobs project for crafts makers called The Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree.
Flake’s efforts and jail time for the likes of Duke Cunningham helped lead to lawmakers having to put their names on earmarks.
Flake thought putting names on earmarks would curb the abuse, but said his fellow members of Congress are “a tough bunch to shame.” But before long members were withdrawing certain earmarks before he could bring them up on the floor.
Eventually Boehner put an end to the practice entirely.
For Coats, who has done more than a dozen Waste of the Week floor speeches, taking on individual spending items has always been a plan B. His preferred plan A is “going big” with larger spending packages such as Simpson-Bowles , the “gang of six ” and supercommittees .
But those plans went nowhere, so he started looking for “wasteful” programs to cut that could act as new funding for other programs.
“The discretionary pot is shrinking and there’s going to be less to spend on important programs, like NIH research, paving roads, education,” Coats said. “Maybe we ought to cut costs.”
The noise has mostly come from Republicans. But according to Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware — a Budget Committee member Coburn thought of as a Democratic ally on waste issues — and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., senators can also fight waste by working in their committees and subcommittees.
“As a former auditor, I’ve been doing it since the day I got here,” McCaskill said.
Of course, one lawmaker’s Bridge to Nowhere is another’s bridge to somewhere. Flake argues that some earmarks may have funded worthwhile projects but probably could have been paid for without federal tax dollars, and that bills such as Medicare Part D, which Flake believes was passed because of earmarks, would have never became law.
“For every example you could find where a good piece of legislation passed because a few people were convinced because of projects, you could point to 100 that shouldn’t have been passed,” he said.
For Coons, that’s the gray area of this not-so black-and-white issue — he says projects need to be scrutinized on their merit.
“That’s the challenge, to figure out whether it is in fact waste; and are there different purposes that are legitimately distinguishable,” Coons said.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., prefers, like Coats, a holistic approach to fiscal policy changes, but doesn’t believe it’s necessarily helpful to chip away at the edges.
“I don’t think you can pick and choose what you like and what you dislike,” Manchin said. “If you want to get your financial house in order you got to look at the entire thing, the entire picture, and if you’ve got to step on Republican or Democrat toes then you’ve got to be willing to do that.”
Related: Flake Releases ‘Jurassic Pork’ Report Coburn’s ‘Wastebook’ Targets Include Mountain Lions, Sheep, Beer See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call’s new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.