WASHINGTON – After seven record-breaking years in a row, the number and cost of so-called pork barrel projects is way down, thanks to voter outrage and a one-year moratorium imposed by Democrats after taking over Congress.
That's good news, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that has railed against congressional "earmarks" for years.
"There are no indoor rain forests, National Peanut Festivals, mariachi music grants, or teapot museums to be found," according to the group's annual "Pig Book."
For the uninitiated, "pork" means homestate and home district projects specially set aside in congressional spending measures, chiefly the 11 annual appropriations bills.
The reason, said the group, is that Senate GOP conservatives put a halt to moves late last year to pass a huge pork-laden spending bill wrapping up unfinished budget work.
Instead, it fell to Democrats to finish the job last month, and the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees declared a one-year ban on most back-home projects until reforms could be put in place.
That ban meant lawmakers have no explicit say in directing water projects, local anti-crime grants, agricultural research projects or any of the thousands of earmarks that typically are woven into domestic spending bills. It will instead fall to federal bureaucrats to make such decisions, to the dismay of congressional traditionalists.
Still, there were 2,658 earmarks in the defense and homeland security spending bills — passed under GOP control — total $13.2 billion, according to the group.
The anti-pork group has a broad definition of what constitutes pork. Anything not specifically requested by President Bush automatically qualifies. Others prefer the know-it-when-you-see-it test.
Lots of earmarks qualify under either criterion. There's $4 million to extend the Alaska Railroad's Northern Line, hardly a Pentagon priority. The railroad is a pet project of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a powerful member of the Appropriations Committee.
And there's $11.5 million for a telescope in Hawaii to search for asteroids and other objects that might collide with Earth. That project was promoted by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
While the number and cost of projects is way down from a record of $29 billion set in 2006, they're likely to inch back up when Congress advances the next round of spending bills, for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
Already, lawmakers and lobbyists are working hard to convince the powerful chairmen of Appropriations subcommittees of the merits of their proposed earmarks. Competition is likely to be fierce since there's such a pent-up demand now that the moratorium has been lifted.
Still, Democrats promise a big reduction in the number of earmarks, and President Bush has called on Congress to cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. His budget office is to release next week a study of earmarks that will serve as a benchmark to measure how well Congress is doing.
Earmarks had blossomed under GOP control of Congress. Former Republican leaders Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Tom DeLay, R-Texas, advocated the practice to help cement GOP majorities.
The public has been angered by scandals such as the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who took more than $2.4 million in using his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to obtain earmarks on behalf of defense contractors.