The Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) organization has issued its 2020 Congressional Pig Book that itemizes the most blatant examples of pork.
It notes, “For the third year in a row, members of Congress have set a record for the cost of earmarks during the supposed earmark moratorium. This year’s Congressional Pig Book exposes 274 earmarks, a decrease of 2.8 percent from the 282 in FY 2019. While the number of earmarks declined slightly, their cost went in the opposite direction. Legislators added $15.9 billion in earmarks in FY 2020, an increase of 3.9 percent from the $15.3 billion in FY 2019. The cost of the FY 2020 earmarks is only 3.6 percent less than the $16.5 billion in FY 2010, the last year prior to the moratorium. Since FY 1991, CAGW has identified 111,417 earmarks costing $375.7 billion.”
The fight against earmarks, notes CAGW, gained traction due to the tireless work of members of Congress such as then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); high-profile boondoggles like the Bridge to Nowhere; and a decade of scandals that resulted in jail terms.
As Sen. McCain explained regarding those making the case for a return to earmarks, “The problem with all their arguments is: the more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”
Earmarks are not just excess generosity bestowed on the general public. They are, in essence, a means with which powerful members of Congress buy votes to guarantee their re-election. As CAGW notes, “Earmarks provide the most benefit to those with spots on prime congressional committees. In the 111th Congress, when the names of members of Congress who obtained earmarks were included in the appropriations bills, the 81 House and Senate appropriators, making up 15 percent of Congress, were responsible for 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money.”
In the past, the organization explains, Members of Congress were required to add their names to earmarks, at least giving the public some insight to who was abusing the process, this is no longer the case. Earmarks are now found throughout the appropriations bills, increasing the amount of effort necessary for identification, and making it more difficult to eliminate them through floor amendments. Under the old system, earmarks were largely contained in the “Congressionally Directed Spending” section at the end of the legislation.
Getting Washington’s vast deficit under control will require both getting earmarks under control as well as spending in general. The National debt, according to Debt Clock.org as of this writing stood at over $27 trillion. CAGW notes, “A January 2020 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report forecast an average annual deficit of $1.3 trillion between fiscal years (FY) 2021 and 2030, rising to $1.7 trillion by the end of the decade, adding $12.4 trillion to the national debt and bringing it to $36.2 trillion. That estimate was made prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent healthcare crisis and economic shutdown. One estimate suggests that the pandemic will add $8 trillion to CBO’s FY 2030 projection, for a total of $44.2 trillion.”
Prior attempts to restrain spending have been unsuccessful, in large part because they failed to discriminate against worthwhile spending and nonessential outlays. Business Insider reported in 2017 that the debt at the end of 2008 — just before Obama took office — stood at roughly $10,699,805,000,000. The debt as Obama left office stood at $19,573,445,000,000. Despite that near-doubling of the debt, it is difficult to find any gains in key areas during his administration.
Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government.