Pork is the methamphetamine of Capitol Hill. It's dangerously addictive and difficult to quit cold turkey. And when the junkies in Congress are confronted with the damage caused by their nasty habit, they flat deny having a problem.
Interventions by advocates, reformed addicts and the precious few representatives who've managed to keep clean finally appear to be making a dent in the dealing that dominates the halls of Washington. But a new report by Taxpayers for Common Sense reveals just how far Congress has to go to rid its bills of earmarks once and for all.
The group has compiled the most complete report on pork-barrel spending to date, attaching dollar figures to every lawmaker who inserted pet projects into spending bills for fiscal year 2008. In all, lawmakers larded up legislation with nearly 13,000 earmarks at a cost of $18.3 billion to taxpayers. Of that total, only $14.8 billion worth of pork was disclosed by members of Congress.
Nevada's entire delegation sidled up to the trough, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid slurping the most slop. The Democrat was the sole sponsor of $170 million in earmarks, and co-sponsored an additional $135 million in pork. Republican Sen. John Ensign, normally a consistent voice of fiscal conservatism, got $7.4 million in solo pork and signed onto $96 million more. In the House, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley had $631,000 in personal pork and $46 million in shared largess, while Republican Reps. Dean Heller and Jon Porter each had about $2.7 million in individual earmarks and $29 million and $16 million in co-sponsored pork, respectively.
This wasteful spending, doled out like candy to favored special interests and constituencies, is a big reason why Congress can't balance the budget and pays ever more interest on the growing national debt.
Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, in part, on their criticism of a Republican "culture of corruption" that used anonymously sponsored earmarks to ensure a steady flow of funding to GOP re-election campaigns.
To their credit, Democrats have followed through on pledges to bring sunshine to pork spending, requiring earmark sponsors to identify themselves, and have reduced the number of earmarks by 23 percent since 2005. But they've fallen well short of the 50 percent cut House leadership promised. And Democrats haven't been bashful about cashing in on their newfound power, taking 57 percent of the $18.3 billion pie for themselves.
These baby steps toward meaningful reform could take a giant leap, thanks to John McCain's presidential campaign. Sen. McCain, an Arizona Republican, was one of the first lawmakers to commit to a pork-free diet, and has since been joined by a few dozen others, including Democrats such as Rep. Henry Waxman of California. Sen. McCain vows as president to veto any legislation that includes even one earmark.
Contrast that with his Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Sen. Clinton signed onto $340 million worth of earmarks this fiscal year, making her one of the Senate's biggest porkers. That total doesn't include the $1 million she sought for a Woodstock museum, which was struck down by lawmakers. Sen. Obama, meanwhile, attached his name to a total of $91 million in pork. Sen. Obama, who pushed for earmark transparency in the Senate, defends earmarks for public entities such as schools, colleges and hospitals.
Voters should pay attention to the issue and press lawmakers' positions on pork in advance of this year's elections. Only when the electorate starts tossing irresponsible spenders from office will Congress see more members enter earmark rehab. Absent that, a president who swears off pork is the quickest cure.