Members of Congress defend earmarks as federal funds they need for projects that will help their local districts.
But the taxpayers' money goes to such projects as finding ways to utilize wood, preventing brown tree snakes on Guam and supporting California's vibrant wine industry -- in all 50 states and for much longer than originally intended.
Take "wood utilization" research. Since 1995, taxpayers have spent nearly $100 million to find ways to utilize wood. And even though 12 federal agencies already preserve, promote and protect trees and the timber industry, congressmen from 11 states tack on another $4 million a year for similar projects.
Money for shrimp aquaculture has been funded yearly since 1985, and lawmakers recently added 74 earmarks worth $76 million to help shrimp farmers in states like Arizona and Texas. This year they want $2.9 million more.
Other earmarks include: $15 million to prevent brown tree snakes in Hawaii and Guam.
Heritage Foundation economist Brian Riedl say some earmarks stay in the budget year after year, often because they have the same campaign contributors who are effectively buying a government grant.
"And once Congress develops special interest with the recipient, they keep going back to the well. And the result is no matter how wasteful and stupid some of these earmarks are, like utilization research, you just can't get rid of them," Riedl says.
Ireland has an economy many argue is in better shape than the U.S., and yet since 1986 U.S. taxpayers have given $265 million to that country for "economic and social development."
Taxpayers are still subsidizing the International Fund for Ireland to the tune of $14 million a year.
Taxpayers also subsidized peanuts with 10 earmarks totaling $4.8 million since 1997. Alabama lawmakers are asking for another $413,000 in 2010. This is in addition to the $8 million the USDA already spends on the peanut industry.
U.S. wine sales last year topped $30 billion, and yet California and New York lawmakers used your money to provide them $90 million in research. This year they want $7.6 million more. The table grape industry received its own $3.5 million grant, while the Center for Grape Genetics in upstate New York has pulled in roughly $2 million in each of the last 4 years.
Critics say if these programs really were important, federal agencies would include them in the budget. Fact is, most of them are not because they can't win a competitive grant and really are just pork, or something that benefits a pet interest or benefactor of a given lawmaker.
"The earmark system we have now has not always been this way. Fifteen years ago there were only 1,000 earmarks per year. Now there's 10,000 earmarks per year," Riedl says.
"The result is while it costs only $20 billion per year, these earmarks are used to persuade congressmen to vote for trillion-dollar spending bills So, they end up greasing the entire wheels of big government."