WASHINGTON – For all the hand-wringing on Capitol Hill about larding bills with homestate projects, the latest report from a taxpayer group says lawmakers hit a record last year.
Citizens Against Government Waste, in its annual "Pig Book" released Wednesday, details $29 billion of what it calls pork-barrel spending.
For the uninitiated, "pork" means homestate and home district projects specially set aside in congressional spending measures, chiefly the 11 annual appropriations bills.
Money for roads and bridges, grants to law enforcement agencies and charity groups, and water projects is well received back home, which in turn feeds lawmakers' appetites for the projects.
Some of these earmarks are more audacious than others. For example, last year there was a "bridge to nowhere," a $223 million project connecting Alaska's Gravina Island — population 50 — to the mainland. That project drew so much ridicule from the media that an irate public successfully demanded that the bridge be shelved.
The anti-pork group has a pretty 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. Consider a $1 million water-free urinal conservation initiative obtained by Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., or a $500,000 grant for the Arctic Winter Games in Alaska, slipped into a Pentagon spending bill by GOP Sen. Ted Stevens.
Even though term limit rules have forced Stevens out as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, he still runs its defense subcommittee and managed to deliver $325 million to Alaska, according to the group's estimates. That comes to about $490 per man, woman and child in the state.
Just slightly behind — at least on a per capita basis — is Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who has a peas-in-a-pod relationship with Stevens as the top Democrat on that Appropriations subcommittee. Inouye helped deliver $482 million to Hawaii, or $378 per person.
The nationwide average is $31 in pork per capita. That means larger states such as Georgia, Florida, Texas and Michigan are not getting an equal share compared with smaller states represented by veterans like Stevens, Inouye, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. ($132 per capita), or Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. ($110).
Earmarks have blossomed under GOP control of Congress. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., advocated the practice to help cement GOP majorities.
Now, core GOP voters are restive over the party's record on spending.
The public is 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 in behalf of defense contractors
"The whole country is sick of this," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Efforts to overhaul rules governing earmarks are under way in both the House and Senate.
According to statistics kept by the House Appropriations Committee, the amount of money devoted to earmarks in appropriations bills fell over the past year, from $19.8 billion in the 2005 budget year to $17 billion in the current year.