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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Congressional Pork

Well, he did it. President Obama signed the latest funding bill with nearly 9,000 earmarks on it. Some in our country are up in arms about it. He'd promised us he'd stop the pork barrel projects that come out of these earmarks. He said he'd go through the federal budget "line by line" to eliminate things that don't make sense. I think if more people understood "congressional pork" or earmarks or "pork barrel" projects - more people would be up in arms about it!

It doesn't take too much to learn about it though. One of the best places I've found is a group called Citizens Against Government Waste ("CAGW"). They study the spending bills to identify the issues and make them known. (Lord knows, we could never rely on the Dallas Morning News to provide such a worthwhile public service!) But I digress. CAGW looks at each item in the spending bill to see if it belongs in there. They identify the things that don't and then run a test on them to determine if they qualify as "pork barrel" initiatives.

In fiscal year 2008, Congress stuffed 11,610 projects (the second highest total ever) into the 12 appropriations bills worth $17.2 billion. The 11,610 projects represent a 337 percent increase over the 2,658 projects in fiscal year 2007. The $17.2 billion is a 30 percent increase over the fiscal year 2007 total of $13.2 billion. There were 11,146 disclosed projects worth $13.8 billion and 464 undisclosed projects worth $3.4 billion. (Undisclosed means we don’t get to know what the money is being used for!)

1,188 projects, totaling $2.8 billion meet at least one of the criteria (but most satisfy at least two) that are established by CAGW for the projects to qualify as "pork." Here are the criteria that CAGW uses:
  1. Requested by only one chamber of Congress;
  2. Not specifically authorized;
  3. Not competitively awarded;
  4. Not requested by the President;
  5. Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding;
  6. Not the subject of congressional hearings;
  7. Serves only a local or special interest.

So what are some of the earmarks in this pork barrel that came out of the U.S. Congress in 2008? Surprisingly, most of them seemed at least somewhat plausible. Construction of chapels, gymnasiums and other facilities for military personnel, development of regional or national infrastructure and other things. They make sense --- until you remember the above criteria that they meet.

Of course there are the things that raise eyebrows too. They may not be a complete waste of money. But one has to consider whether it is worth mortgaging our future (i.e., borrowing more against the national debt) to pay for such priorities. Here are some examples:

$7,556,660 for grape and wine research.

$4,840,875 for wood utilization research in 10 states, including “refinement of processing technology for laminated veneer lumber for furniture, flooring, and other specialty industries.” (This research has cost taxpayers $90.8 million since 1985.)

$1,709,946 for sorghum research.

$968,175 for berry research;

$818,232 for alternative salmon products;

$132,069 for native plant commercialization.

$3,097,167 for shrimp aquaculture research in seven states. “The goal of this program is to develop a sustainable domestic shrimp farming industry in the United States.” (Since 1985, $68.7 million has been appropriated for this research.)

$1,117,125 for mormon crickets;

$36,741 for weed management in Nevada

$709,995 for dairy and poultry waste treatment; (yes, cow and chicken poop)

$329,676 for oyster post harvest treatment;

$742,764 for olive fruit fly research. ($211,509 is to be spent in Paris, France.)

$460,752 for hops research. (Hops is a main ingredient in beer.)

$172,782 for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

$148,950 for the Montana Sheep Institute to explore opportunities to increase the utilization of sheep in weed management.

$7,520,000 to create, develop, and commercialize new technology to meet America’s demand for warm water marine seafood.

$3,478,000 for the harbor seal and stellar sea lion protection program.

$846,000 for the Father's Day Rally Committee Inc. (Men United Program in Philadelphia)

$1,648,850 for the Shedd Aquarium (Chicago). The aquarium’s website says the facility was a “gift to the people of Chicago from John Graves Shedd, president and chairman of the board of Marshall Fields & Company.” This aquarium receives 2 million visitors per year and has 36 corporate benefactors. At the end of 2004 (the last year for which information is available); the aquarium had a fund balance of approximately $200 million.

$188,000 for the Lobster Institute. The group’s website says, The Lobster Institute been working on its “Lobster Cam (,” One of its major accomplishments has been lobster dog biscuits.

$19,942,000 for four projects funding presidential libraries. Presidential libraries are constructed with private funds donated to nonprofit organizations set up for the purpose, and then are managed by the federal government under the National Archives and Records Administration, receiving annual operating subsidies.

$2,400,000 for renovations to Haddad Riverfront Park. The 51,342 residents of Charleston could each pay $46.75 to the city instead of forcing the price tag on the hundreds of millions of Americans who probably will never visit the facility.

$625,000 for the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The cemetery is supposed to be a historic landmark, but the cemetery is best known as an open space where, for an annual membership fee, Capitol Hill residents can let their dogs run free.

$98,440 for the Philadelphia Art Museum. At the end of 2004 (the latest available), the Philadelphia Art Museum had net assets in excess of $300 million.

$98,440 for the Granbury (Texas) Historic Opera House Theater. Shows slated for 2008 include Annie Get your Gun and The Music Man.

$14,878,000 for the International Fund for Ireland (IFI). IFI is an organization whose objectives are to promote economic and social advance and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and unionists throughout Ireland. Despite the fact that peace has broken out in Ireland and the Irish economy is the strongest in Europe, U.S. taxpayers continue to fund Sesame Workshop, a shorter Northern Ireland version of Sesame Street; Ben & Jerry’s; a “conference to highlight development opportunities for chefs;” and two three-star hotels, one of which is no longer in business. It appears that the U.S. government has spent $249.6 million for this project since 1995.

$98,000 for renovations to the Wakely Lodge Resort, the site of a nine-hole public golf course in Indian Lake. The $19 greens fee charged at Wakely Lodge Golf Course is apparently not enough to cover renovations to the lodge.

$98,000 to develop a walking tour of Boydton. The town has a population of 474, and covers .82 square miles.

$49,000 for construction of a National Mule and Packers Museum

Source: Citizens Against Government Waste (

President Obama had promised in his campaigning days that he would have all bills awaiting his signature posted on a web site so that the public could review it for at least five (5) days before he signed it. So far that hasn't happened. He signed this one yesterday without our seeing it. We don't really know what's in it. But we do know that more than 8,000 earmarks are in it and it is likely that many of those look like the above list (from last year).

So you decide whether we as American citizens should be excited about this. The truth of the matter is that most of us haven't been excited about it before. Now that we're in the worst financial crisis of our country's life, do YOU think this stuff matters? If so, what are YOU going to do about it?

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