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The House and Senate are still in recess. Once again, I recommend that you find the time to see your legislators while they at home and not in Washington, DC. A handy list of public townhall meetings and recommended questions can be found here.
The Politics of Pork Barrel Spending. As the 2002 budget and appropriations season gets underway, there is a lot of discussion about the use of ‘pork-barrel spending.’ Many conservative groups decry the use of such measures, while well-heeled lobbyists and politicians seeking the voters’ support tout their ability to get such funding. What exactly is pork barrel spending and why is it so bad??
Defined as, “a government project or appropriation that yields jobs or other benefits to a specific locale and patronage opportunities to its political representative,” to understand the intricacies of pork barrel spending it is important to first understand the budget process. Money is taken from individuals, businesses and consumers in the form of taxes. This money is then filtered through Congress and thirteen appropriations bills to be allocated by federal level Cabinets and agencies. These agencies dole out the funding through programs that have been set up over the years by Congress, most often to perform a certain function. Usually the money can be spent three ways: 1) on federal programs that have been authorized and legislated, 2) on state programs that have been authorized at the state level or 3) to grant recipients that have competitively bid for federal financing. The theory is that all of these programs represent federal priorities and therefore are deserving of the federal dollar.
An Example. Let’s take job training as an example. The Department of Labor maintains dozens of job training programs under one of their agencies. They receive a net amount from Congress to spend on this agency and then the Department spreads out the funding over these dozens of job training programs. Much of the money goes to the States for them to disburse but a lot of money also goes to successful grant applicators. While CSE and other like-minded organizations do not necessarily agree with funding these government programs, it does provide an established system by which funding can be allocated to thousands upon thousands of government programs. Then you add in pork barrel spending – which throws this system into chaos.
Pork barrel spending occurs when Members of Congress use the appropriations process to circumvent the federal funding system. Let’s use the job-training example again. Say Congressman X wants to engender some goodwill back home and knows that building a job training facility will garner some positive press. So, instead of having his/her local community make the case for expending federal funds in this manner, which would subject this project to scrutiny, instead they just insert the project. The appropriators will simply put in what is called a ‘line-item’ for the amount of funding that is needed to begin to build a whole new center, taking away resources for other job training needs somewhere else.
What is Wrong With Pork-Barrel Spending? There are several reasons why pork barrel spending represents a problem for our country. 1) the federal government should fund national priorities, why must Florida taxpayers pay for a bridge in Missouri? 2) grantees with legitimate national needs get squeezed out of the process, 3) it encourages even MORE of this type of spending, and 4) it fuels the already rampant cynicism of the American public.
Pork barrel spending is a time-honored tradition, however, with the burgeoning economy it reached new and dangerous levels. With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans blamed their pork barrel spending on the fact that a Democrat agency wouldn’t fund their projects. However, last year’s budget, created under a Republican president, belies that statement. Last year alone, Congress added an all-time high of 7,803 pork-barrel earmarks worth about $15 billion to the 13 appropriations bills. Included among these nearly 8,000 earmarks were projects such as:
Even President Bush felt the need to reprimand Congress for their constant use of this type of spending, cautioning them repeatedly in his 2002 Budget submission to refrain from this type of abuse.
At this point, stopping this type of spending is impossible. Its political benefit and relative ease make pork barrel spending a Washington standby. Only by highlighting these transgressions and abuses - and eventually gathering strong grassroots opposition - can we possibly shame them into foregoing their favorite pastime.