Despite declaring a moratorium on pork-barrel spending more than five years ago, members of Congress secured 163 earmarks in the 2017 federal budget worth $6.8 billion, according to a new report by Citizens Against Government Waste.
Spending on the special projects — often requested by a single member of Congress for companies and organizations in their districts — represents more than a doubling of the $3.3 billion in earmarks the group identified in the 2012 budget.
The ban began in 2012, but has long been criticized by both members of Congress and watchdog groups as being ineffective. The new report, the group said, demonstrates how members are finding it easier to ignore and find ways around the ban.
“Some members of Congress are trying to return the wasteful and corrupt system to prominence even after taxpayers delivered a 'drain the swamp' message to D.C. less than a year ago,” said Tom Schatz, president of the group in a prepared statement, adding that it is time to “adopt a permanent ban on pork-barrel earmarks.”
The ban was adopted as an agreement, not a law, and efforts to put a more prescriptive moratorium in place have failed. A series of controversial earmark-funded projects — including the “Bridge to Nowhere” that became infamous during the 2008 presidential campaign — prompted the ban. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) secured more than $200 million in earmarks for the bridge, which would have connected a small town in Alaska to its airport.
The “Pig Book” has been released annually by the Washington-based group for 25 years.
Examples from this year's report included $5.9 million for the East-West Center in Hawaii, championed by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). The mission of the public, nonprofit organization is to “promote better relations and understanding” with Pacific and Asian nations, according to its website.
It was established by Congress in 1960 with no congressional hearings amid objections by the State Department which has, for years, attempted to close the center through the annual budget process. A 2009 Congressional Research Service report compared it to a program based in Miami, which shut down in 2003, two years after it stopped receiving federal funds. In 2001, Congress said the program should be funded by the private sector.
Schatz, who is not related to the watchdog group's president, defended his request for continued funding of the center in a prepared statement, saying it is “critical to our national security.”
“With the U.S. military rebalancing 60 percent of its forces to the region, the Center’s strategic importance will continue to grow,” Schatz said. “That is why I am committed to making sure the Center has the resources it needs to maintain its valuable programs and secure our national interests.”
Another example included $5 million for a noncompetitive federal grant program, called Save America's Treasures, which goes to support restoration of local theaters, museums and opera houses. In 2011, then-President Barack Obama called for the elimination of the grants, saying they had “not demonstrated how they contribute to nationwide historic preservation goals.”
The group uses seven criteria to determine whether a spending provision is an earmark. For a project to make it into the book, at least two of the criteria must be met. The most common include funding requests made by only one member of Congress, noncompetitive grants and projects that serve only a local or special interest.
The report was released at a news conference attended by six members of Congress, including Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who said: “There are a lot of expenditures we could do without. We need to understand where taxpayers' dollars are going.”
In a prepared statement, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called the report “an annual blueprint for saving taxpayers billions of dollars.”