Five years ago, lawmakers on Capitol Hill congratulated themselves for finally putting an end to a long-standing practice of allowing members to “earmark” portions of spending bills to benefit their home states or congressional districts.
While members of Congress had long argued that they were just as capable of deciding on how to divvy up federal largesse as “nameless and faceless” federal bureaucrats, in fact many of those earmarks wasted of billions of dollars over the years. The so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” -- a proposed bridge to replace the ferry currently connecting the Alaskan town of Ketchikan with the sparsely populated Gravina Island – became the poster child for dubious earmark spending.
While Congress formally imposed a moratorium on this sort of fiscal mischief in 2010, the funding for many previously approved transportation, parks, museums and defense projects lives on in the accounts of federal departments and agencies.
A new study issued this week by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), aptly named “Jurassic Pork,” documents the billions of dollars’ spent on previously approved projects that just won’t go away.
“Like Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus, Triceratops and other terrible lizards of the past, the infamy of many congressional earmarks lives on to this day,” Flake wrote in the introduction to his detailed report. “The indoor rain forest in Iowa, a teapot museum in North Carolina, and of course the notorious Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.”
Flake said that by all accounts, the earmark ban has been a resounding success, with no new earmarks approved since the official start of the ban. Still, in one form or another, legacy spending on earmarks continues on.
In some cases, the appropriated funding has yet to be spent. In other cases, such as new programs for national parks or preferences in the tax code, the earmarks were permanently set in concrete by Congress.
According to Citizens Against Government Waste, earmarks cost taxpayers $2.6 billion in 1991 and steadily grew to $29 billion at the height of the abuse of earmarks in 2006.
“Fossilized within the federal budget, these projects continue to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” the Arizona Republican wrote. “Many have even outlasted the terms of the politicians who created them.”
The release of the report was timed to coincide with the release of “Jurassic World,” the latest in the “Jurassic Park” film series.
Highway spending provided extraordinarily fertile ground for long-lasting earmarked projects, according to the report. Some 1,282 transportation earmarks worth $5.9 billion are still on the books, although the funding authorization sits idle in Department of Transportation accounts.
For example, Congress directed $500,000 to the Georgia Department of Transportation for historic preservation of the 1906 AB&A Railroad Building in Fitzgerald. There are also three earmarks totaling $5.6 million for Massachusetts transportation officials to design and build bike paths between Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass.
The American Ballet Theatre in New York has received $810,000 of earmarks since 2005, thanks in part to the intervention of Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), a champion of the ballet, who once played a dead body in a performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”
The report also targets a legacy earmark for genetic-grape research, which, even after the moratorium, secured $2 million in federal funding. And the report complains that the government continues to spend millions on Steamtown USA, a historic train museum and tourist center in Scranton, Pa., that had been heavily promoted for years by former Rep. Joseph McDade (R-PA).
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