Pigging out on pork persists

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran addresses supporters and volunteers at his runoff election victory party Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Humor has the capacity to change the way the world thinks. That even includes the stuffed shirts on Capitol Hill. Witness the long-term effect of the "Pig Book," annually published by Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based public policy organization.

The "Pig Book" has systematically highlighted congressional earmarks for 20 years, and has chronicled their ongoing decline. Over the years, the earmarks have gotten less outrageous and the book has gotten smaller. Clearly the once-rich field of congressional pork grows smaller in scope.

One reason, of course, is that the focus on earmarks has resulted in their ban from spending bills - though the "Pig Book" continues to ferret out a few congressional appropriations that can hardly be called anything else.

The CAGW made the case for earmark reform before like-minded congressmen were able to prevail upon their colleagues and enacted an earmark ban in 2011.

As a result of the ban, earmark totals declined by 28.3 percent, from 152 in 2012 to 109 in 2014. Meanwhile the cost of earmarks declined from $3.3 billion to $2.7 billion. CAGW reports that the latter figure is the lowest earmark total since 1992. In 2006, earmarks totaled a record $29 billion.

Ridicule may be the most effective agent for public policy change. It should be a caution to those veteran federal lawmakers who still yearn for the days of bringing home the bacon.

Unfortunately, buy now, pay later continues to define the fiscal thinking behind entitlement spending for Social Security and Medicare. That helps explain the national debt's climb to a record $17.5 trillion.

The latest entry into the "Pig Book" may not contain the same number of home-state howlers.

But it does list a few big earmarks, such as $90 million to upgrade the M1 Abrams tank, a project opposed by the Pentagon. The CAGW notes that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has repeatedly opposed the allocation, citing 2,000 tanks "sitting idle in the California desert."

CAGW observed that the tank's suppliers are spread across numerous congressional districts, adding, "There's nothing like a good old-fashioned jobs program disguised as national security."

And there's $25 million for the Starbase Youth Program, which teaches science, technology, engineering and math to at-risk youth at or near military bases. Sounds good, but it duplicates numerous other programs that are similar in nature.

No local allocations made the list, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did for his support of $1.28 million for the Savannah Harbor Deepening "because he believes it will help the Port of Charleston." Or to put it another way, giving Savannah what it wants should remove any impediments to federal support for the harbor deepening for Charleston among the 16 members of the Georgia congressional delegation who also supported the Savannah project. Get on board!

And one of the major "pork" allocations cited was $31.5 million for the National Endowment for Democracy, "a private, nonprofit foundation that helps grow and strengthen democratic institutions around the world."

In contrast, former Sen. Ernest F. Hollings contends that NED has undermined American foreign policy in Ukraine, and caused mischief for the State Department elsewhere on the globe. In any event, NED operates with your tax dollars, to the tune of $114.6 million since 1997, the "Pig Book" reports.

The return of earmarks has been forecast by some observers with the narrow victory of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in his party's primary.

Indeed, the "Pig Book" describes him as "the preeminent congressional porker," having requested 709 earmarks costing $1.9 billion from 2008 through 2010, when congressmen were required to identify their earmark requests. And that's just a pork-barrel snapshot into his long congressional career.

We'd like to think that earmarks will continue to be viewed generally with disdain in conservative states and districts. And that the "Pig Book" keeps us laughing as it helps keeps Congress honest.