Congressional 'Pig Book' finds $6.8 billion in pork-barrel spending

FILE photo shows Faye the pot-bellied pig. Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) held a press conference on Wed. July 19, 2017 to debut the 2017 Congressional Pig Book, documenting $6.8 billion in earmarks. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

The government watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) published their annual report on wasteful government spending and found that Congress is not keeping Kosher. Despite a ban on earmarks, lawmakers approved $6.8 billion in pork-barrel projects in 2017, marking the third straight year of increases.

The 2017 Congressional Pig Book, released on Wednesday, showed that Congress increased the number of local or special interest projects and the spending on those projects by 33 percent in 2017.

While CAGW's definition of "earmarks" and pork has stayed the same since its first report in 1991, Congress has adopted a different set of criteria that has allowed them to tack on billions of dollars to government spending bills and still claim they are pork-free.

In 2011, after Republicans took control of the House, both houses of Congress banned the use of earmarks, generally defined as the extra money tacked onto government spending bills that goes directly to a specific project or beneficiary and has been used historically to help lawmakers make up their minds on tough votes.

Yet in the six years since the moratorium went into effect, the authors of the Pig Book have watched earmarks increase by 106 percent, a trend they say is "downright disturbing."

"Some members of Congress argue that earmarks grease the skids, allow for legislation to be passed," explained CAGW president Thomas Schatz. "Citizens Against Government Waste has referred to earmarks as legalized bribery."

Among the most famous (or infamous) earmarks include the $320 million Alaskan bridge to nowhere, $2.5 million for the National Science Foundation to study speed-dating, $23 million for abstinence education and $1.8 million to research pig manure.

To showcase the size of the problem, CAGW held a press conference on Wednesday morning featuring lawmakers and Faye, a full-grown pot-bellied pig and mascot for government waste.

The $6.8 billion in government waste identified this year is only a fraction of what it was when pork-barrel spending hit its record high of $29 billion in 2006. Members of Congress and federal agencies have successfully cut a lot of fat. But that spending could come back.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is an advocate of making the earmark ban permanent not only to help cut wasteful government spending, but to prevent appropriators from trying to "buy votes."

"Some of the big spending bills, there will be all these earmarks because that's how you buy votes," he noted.

The billions of dollars in earmarks is an "inappropriate" use of taxpayer money, DeSantis continued. "But part of it too, is then some of those earmarks are used to leverage support for massive spending bills."

In recent decades, Congress has developed the habit of forcing through all 12 appropriations bills together, rather than considering them separately. In May, Congress passed a $1.07 trillion spending bill that runs out on October 1.

Unless Congress can meet the October 1 deadline to fund the government, they are again poised to pass another omnibus spending bill with little time and few opportunities for lawmakers to remove pork.

Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Mark Walker (N.C.) said that members are "trying to see through the frustration" of the appropriations process. He expects the end result will be result a "last-minute" omnibus spending bill arrive just in time to avert a government shutdown.

Between the health care fight, budget and appropriations concerns, Walker said, "you can almost feel it in the air as far as some of the tension."

Another concern for members and watchdog groups trying to curb congressional pork is the fact that the House is now reviewing the earmark moratorium and has not yet fully reauthorized the ban.

The Senate voted in January to extend the earmark moratorium, but three Republican representatives,Tom Rooney of Florida, John Culberson of Texas and Mike Rogers of Alabama, are holding up the process in the House.

"The fact that the House has not extended the moratorium is a bad sign for taxpayers," Schatz said. The three congressmen are trying to bring back limited earmarks that could be directed through just three agencies: the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

"This opens the door for either a change in the definition or eventually the elimination of the earmark moratorium altogether," Schatz warned. "It's ridiculous that after a 'drain the swamp' election they're talking about restoring earmarks."

When Sinclair Broadcast Group asked Culberson about his amendment that could reopen the door for earmarks, he brushed it off as "old news" and said he was focused on "big issues" like health care and tax reform.

Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) emphasized that even though the House has not fully reauthorized their commitment to pork-free spending bills, the moratorium is still in effect as they work toward the final 2018 appropriations.

"The ban has been temporarily extended, but we have this bigger review of how we extend it the right way," Flores explained. He expects there could be some improvements made that give Congress more control over how federal agencies spend their money that could prevent millions of taxpayers dollars being used to study speed-dating or promote dolphin tourism.

The Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin (Ill.) noted that with a trillion-dollar federal budget, there is bound to be wasteful spending.

"You can't have a budget that big, involving that many people and a lot of special interests without some waste in it. And taxpayers deserve a Congress that keeps an eye on it," he said.

Durbin serves on the Armed Services Committee where he oversees the $700 billion Pentagon budget. While members of the committee are expected to scour the expenditures for waste, the Department of Defense consistently has the most earmarks.

CAGW found that the Department of Defense earmarks accounted for more than 75 percent of the total cost of pork spending in 2017. The Department of Defense is also the only federal government agency that is not subject to an audit.

Even though the amount of funding directed to lawmakers' pet projects has been in decline, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) warns that too little is being done to address the spiraling costs of the federal government.

"Every American should know the federal government is borrowing about $1.3 billion every day to pay ... its bills," Risch said.

"It isn’t what it’s being spent on," he added, "it’s the irresponsibility of the borrowing that no one is addressing. That is of real concern to me and a handful of other people up here."

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