Congress Feasts On Vegan Pork Despite Earmark Ban

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Senator Barbara Mikulski speaks with reporters in the basement of the Capitol before a vote in the Senate on Dec. 10, 2013

Not long ago, appropriations cardinals had the best jobs in Washington. They didn’t just have the power of the purse; they got to brag about how they used it. But three years ago, when profligate spending became a political liability, Congress imposed an earmark moratorium. In these days of austerity, poor appropriators are reduced to boasting about their parsimony. “There were no earmarks in this bill,” Senate Appropriations chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters on Monday, after she struck a deal on a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill to fund the government this year.

But wait. Here’s Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, boasting about how the bill’s “strong investments in our environment and natural resources” represent a coup for her home state of Washington. Murray’s press release touting how she “secured dozens of wins” notes, for example, that she got $65 million for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, $15 million more than requested by President Obama’s budget, as well as $25 million for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, $8 million more than Obama’s budget request.

Those are earmarks, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group which defines appropriations that significantly exceed the President’s budget requests as pork-barrel spending. The exact nature of an earmark, the pet projects lawmakers slip into big bills to benefit their constituents, is subject to debate. (Murray, like the rest of Congress, adopts a different definition of what constitutes pork.) But the truth is that earmarks haven’t really vanished; they’ve merely changed shape. We have entered a new era for earmarks, in which they are less numerous, less traceable, but still evident.

Call it the era of vegan pork.

Lawmakers no longer lodge the old infamous, itemized requests for project funding. Instead they may source requests to full committees or appeal directly to agencies to have part of the pie shipped their way. The practice is often known as letter-marking (when done in writing) or phone-marking (you get the idea). Instead of a legally binding directive, these are mere suggestions—but they can sway where an agency steers its cash. “It’s not quite as direct as in the earmark era,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, who notes that it doesn’t entail less largesse either.

Citizens Against Government Waste released a report this week that casts the $1.1 trillion omnibus as laden with pork, from the $90 million to upgrade the M1 Abrams tank that the Army says it doesn’t need yet to the $4 million appropriated for aquatic plant-control projects. Because these and other projects aren’t targeted requests from specific lawmakers, Congress does not consider them earmarks—even when the cash flows to projects that benefit specific states or communities, such as salmon conservation in the northwestern U.S., or the $219 million in military construction funding for upgrades at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, designed to accommodate the new KC-46A tankers, which Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas hailed as a “vital step forward.”

Which isn’t to say these are bad projects. Indeed, many people believe that earmarks, fatty as they may have been, served vital needs, while greasing the gears of government. Washington hasn’t worked so well in their (official) absence, and some experts believe the form of earmarking that has cropped up during the moratorium is more pernicious because it is harder to trace.

Earmark opponents say the moratorium has, in fact, reduced the practice. “Overall, they’re doing a pretty good job of restricting them,” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. Though he hastens to add: “They could be doing better.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers