Need $300,000 to renovate your bathroom? Or how about $250,000 to buy new furniture? Then just ask your congressman; chances are they'd love to help.

That's what managers of Indiana's Indian Dunes National Lakeshore did when they needed funds to fix up restrooms at their Porter Beach site. Same with city officials in Boca Raton who needed new street benches. And those states' congressmen were happy to oblige, adding riders to Congress' recently-approved $388 billion 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Act setting aside $306,000 and $250,000, respectively, for each cause.

These appropriations are just two of 11,722 spending items that watchdog group
Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) says were handed out by politicians this year solely for the purpose of shoring up popularity with home-state voters. Total value of this vote-buying? $15,780,533,623 - a record-setting round at the pork barrel, up 68% from last year's total of $10.7 billion. In fact, the number of pork projects tacked onto the omnibus bill has been steadily increasing for the last several years, up 550% since 1997. The taxpayer rights organization Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) pegs the total cost of all oinkers since 1991 at over $185 billion.

Groups like TCS and CCAGW have a number of criteria they use to separate wasteful expenditures like the ones above from other, more legitimate funding. Approved spending is flagged, for example, if it is requested by only one chamber of Congress, greatly exceeds the previous year's funding, or serves only a local or special interest. Each year, these organizations read over the list of new congressional approvals, looking for the biggest pork chops.

And they've found some whoppers in the last few spending bills. $8 million going to fix up a "historic cafeteria building" in Oregon's Crater Lake National Park. $1.5 million for a demonstration project to transport naturally chilled water from Lake Ontario to New York's Lake Onondaga. $1 million for Mississippi's B.B. King Museum Foundation. $250,000 to a single day care facility in South Dakota. $225,000 to South Carolina's National Wild Turkey Federation. $25,000 for a Nevada school district to develop a mariachi music program.

Some of the amounts involved in individual projects are small. But spread $25,000 around ten thousand times, and it starts adding up. As CCAGW note in the introduction to their "Pig Book" on government spending, "Each earmark should bear a sticker on it that reads, This project helped contribute to the $521 billion deficit.'"

Indeed, taxpayers' rights groups say that throwing away dollars on mariachi music and wild turkeys is particularly heinous given the current $7.5 trillion national debt and the all-too-apparent prospect of hundreds of billions being sucked up over the next few years to finance America's overseas wars and gargantuan homeland security efforts. Hardly the time for Congress to pull the lid off the largest pork barrel in history.

Not to say that music, wildlife, cafeteria food, and the other interests funded by congressional appropriations aren't worthy causes. But the funding process is suspect. As the Heritage Foundation, a policy analysis group, points out, the system used to be that Congress would give money to grant programs, which would then be administered by federal agencies, governors, mayors, etc. Prospective recipients would apply and be judged through a reasonably fair and impartial process. Now, it's often only those groups that hire high-powered lobbyists to ply Congress directly that are successful. Virginia's Free Lance Star recently reported that officials in one county were actively courted by a professional lobbying firm claiming that, for a monthly fee of $5,000, they could secure $3.5 million in congressional money for a local sports complex.

Part of the problem, of course, is that few members of Congress even read spending bills before signing them into law. This year, the package in its entirety was given to Congressmen only hours before the approval vote took place. Fortunately, a few souls took the time to at least skim through the document; in the fine print, they found a clause that would have given the Chairmen of the Appropriations Committees and their staffs the right to look through the tax returns of any American. Republican leaders have since promised to remove the provision. Now if only they could undo the $100,000 going to the Punxsutawney Weather Museum.

Posted 12-13-2004 10:29 PM by Doug Casey
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