SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee decried a “corrupt” system that fosters government waste with the release Wednesday of a congressional watchdog group’s annual report on pork-barrel spending.
Citizens Against Government Waste’s 2020 Congressional Pig Book identified $15.9 billion worth of earmarks in 2020 in appropriations bills for a variety of projects, a 3.9% increase over the year before.
Lee said fiscal conservatives believed they had won the war on earmarks when Republicans banned them a decade ago.
“Unfortunately, the swamp being what it is, earmarks are back and getting bigger every year,” he said at a virtual news conference.
The Pig Book release comes two days after the Congressional Budget Office reported that the budget deficit in June was $864 billion. The highest previous monthly deficit was $234 billion.
“While it is understandable that during this unprecedented health care and economic crisis Congress has decided to spend all this money, it’s also a great opportunity for Congress to undertake serious efforts to reduce wasteful spending. And that effort should start with the elimination of earmarks,” said Tom Schatz, Citizens Against Government Waste president.
One of the more frequently used arguments in favor of earmarks is that they help pass legislation, which even President Donald Trump mentioned in 2018. But earmarks cause members of Congress to vote for excessively expensive spending bills that cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for a few projects worth a few million or sometimes just thousands of dollars, the report says.
Congress loosened its ban on earmarks in 2018, arguing they are the “industrial lubricant” to functioning properly again, Lee said.
“Like many terrible political arguments, it’s superficially appealing,” he said. “Congress is indeed dysfunctional, but bringing earmarks back hasn’t improved anything. We still lurch from cliff to cliff and crisis to crisis without any meaningful debate or amendment process.”
The increase in pork-barrel spending occurs behind closed doors and hidden from taxpayers. There are no names of legislators attached to each earmark and limited information on where and how the money will be spent, according to the watchdog group.
Lee said the Washington establishment likes the current practice where party leaders negotiate and write bills, often orchestrating a legislative cliff that leaves Congress with two bad choices.
“This system keeps the campaign and lobbying cash flowing through leadership offices and their alums on K Street,” he said, referring to the thoroughfare in Washington, D.C., where many lobbyists and advocacy groups are housed.
Tough decisions are made in secret without any accountability, Lee said.
“But no one likes the current arrangement of government by cliff, so the swamp hopes all that’s needed is a little earmark lubricant to keep the game going,” he said. This corrupt system excludes all but a handful of representatives and senators, and so effectively disenfranchises hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Bringing back earmarks will only make the situation worse, he said, calling for transparency, decentralization and accountability. Members of Congress should collaborate on legislation, forge compromises and take tough votes.
“The reason that Congress doesn’t work today is that both party establishments are afraid of the electoral consequences of the public actually seeing a free-wheeling debate that they can’t control,” Lee said.
“Earmarks are just one more bad idea that we need to discard before we finally face the truth and do our jobs.”
Citizens Against Government Waste listed 274 pork-barrel projects in its report, down eight from last year. But overall spending on 2020 earmarks was up. Among the items making the list are:
- $2.1 billion for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a project in development for nearly 19 years and nine years behind schedule.
- $65 million for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund.
- $25.8 million for wild horse and burro management.
- $24 million for the aquatic plant control program.
- $16.7 million for the East-West Center in Hawaii.
The group bases pork-barrel spending on seven criteria: requested by only one chamber of Congress; not specifically authorized; not competitively awarded; not requested by the president; greatly exceeds the president’s budget request or the previous year’s funding; not the subject of congressional hearings; and serves only a local or special interest.
Projects must meet at least one of the criteria but most meet at least two, the group says.