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Watchdog group, GOP U.S. House members blast ‘reckless’ earmark spending

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Watchdog group, GOP U.S. House members blast ‘reckless’ earmark spending

Jun 12, 2024 | 6:15 pm ET
By Lia Chien
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Watchdog group, GOP U.S. House members blast ‘reckless’ earmark spending
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U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Arizona, speaks Wednesday at a press conference opposing earmarks. (Photo by Lia Chien/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON – A group opposed to wasteful government spending and a handful of U.S. House Republicans warned at a Wednesday press event that project-specific spending known as earmarks was contributing to an increase in the national debt.

The event to discuss the Citizens Against Government Waste’s latest annual report, titled the 2024 Congressional Pig Book and released Wednesday, highlighted congressional earmarks and called on lawmakers to rein in government spending.

Leaders of the nonpartisan organization, which works to oppose “waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in government,” according to its website, were joined by Republican House members and a live potbelly pig to address earmarks and rising debt limits.

The organization’s annual pig book highlights earmarks, often called “pork.” An earmark is a project-specific funding allocation approved by Congress through the annual appropriations process.

The group identified 8,222 earmarks for fiscal year 2024, totaling $22.7 billion. That’s 13% less than fiscal year 2023 but still the fifth-highest spending year for earmarks since the CAGW began releasing its annual report in 1991.

Republicans ended the controversial spending practice in 2011 after winning control of the House. A decade later, Democrats and Republicans voted to allow earmarked spending again.

Defenders of the practice say it allows members of Congress, who know the needs of their states and districts, to respond with specific funding. The projects comprise a small portion of total federal spending. And lawmakers have a chance to vote on them as part of appropriations bills.

But some Republicans continue to oppose them. Four members on Wednesday gave a similar rationale Wednesday as Republicans did when they eliminated earmarks in 2011, calling them a form of wasteful government spending that’s adding to a rising national debt.

Rep. Bob Good, a Republican from Virginia, stressed how much debt the country continues to accumulate.

“Here we are with $35 trillion in debt,” he said. “After it took us about 200 years to accumulate the first trillion, now we’re accumulating a trillion every four months or so.”

Data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and a CNBC analysis confirms these amounts.

Good, the chair of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, criticized his party for passing a 2023 law to suspend the debt limit. The measure allowed Congress to appropriate “as much as we can joyfully, gleefully spend together,” Good said.

Speakers at the event, which included Reps. Debbie Lesko of Arizona, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Tom McClintock of California as well as Good, shared the sentiment that permanently ditching earmarks would help restore Republicans’ reputation as the “fiscally responsible” party.

“Republicans cannot reclaim the mantle of fiscal responsibility until we end once and for all this reckless and self-indulgent practice,” McClintock said.

Maine and Alaska benefit

Members also spoke to the disproportionate allocation of earmarked spending in Congress.

CAGW President Tom Schatz opened Wednesday’s event by highlighting who in Congress received the most funding in earmarks this fiscal year. Earmarks are required to have a sponsor in the House and Senate.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, took home the most bacon this year with 231 earmarks totaling $576 million.

That total was almost 24% more than the legislator with the second-highest number of earmarks, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who is also on the Appropriations Committee. Murkowski’s 185 earmarks amounted to $466 million.

Members of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate, which write the annual spending laws, gained much more in earmarks than the average member, the report notes.

“Earmarks continue to provide the most benefit to the most powerful legislators,” Schatz said.

The rest of the top five were Sen. Angus King of Maine, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. King caucuses with Democrats, though he is an independent.

Together, these five senators received 10.3% of all earmark spending in fiscal 2024, but make up less than 1% of all members of Congress.

Senators generally won more earmarked spending than their House counterparts, with 37 of the top 40 lawmakers by dollar amount coming from the Senate.

Schatz also spoke to the differences between the parties. Nearly all – 99.6% – congressional Democrats took advantage of the spending practice, while only 62.4% of Republicans did.

The CAGW president also noted an uneven distribution of funding among states and territories.

Watchdog group, GOP U.S. House members blast ‘reckless’ earmark spending
A potbelly pig, named Poppy, pictured June 12, 2024 at a press conference opposing earmarks. (Photo by Lia Chien/States Newsroom)

States with smaller populations receive more “pork per capita,” with Alaska taking the top spot at $645 in earmark spending per person. Maine, with $434 per person, and Hawaii at $336, followed.

The bottom three jurisdictions included Indiana at $4.32 per person, Puerto Rico at $3.67 per person and North Dakota, which received no earmarks.

‘Legalized bribery’

McClintock pointed to earmarks as a cause of corruption in Congress. He said if a project is worthy of funding, it will receive the money under “open, competitive bidding.”

“Worthy projects in open, competitive bidding don’t need earmarks,” he said. “They rise or fall on their merits.”

Good further supported McClintock’s claim of corruption, saying earmarks entice members to vote on legislation to benefit their districts.

“Make no mistake about it,” Good said. “Earmarks are used to buy bad votes for bad bills.”

He added that committee chairs often find earmarks much more rewarding. Appropriations subcommittee chairs can add earmarked funds into spending bills to entice their colleagues to pass a bill, Good said.

“Folks, this is nothing but legalized bribery,” Norman said.

Lesko said celebrating legislators that bring home earmarks makes government spending increase.

“The people like Tom [McClintock] and I and others that actually want to reduce government spending, so it’s responsible, aren’t celebrated at all,” she said.

She pointed the finger at her fellow Arizona representative, Democrat Greg Stanton, after he secured a $700,000 earmark to renovate an economics and business finance program for fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

“Now, is this coming from his bank account?” Lesko said. “No, it’s coming from your bank account.”

Asked Wednesday about Lesko’s comment, a spokesperson for Stanton replied with a written statement from last month’s earmark announcement.

In the release, Stanton said the funding “is an investment in the future of Arizona’s children.”

McClintock closed the press conference by advocating to once again put an end to earmarks.

He referred to former House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who was instrumental in banning earmarks in 2011.

“It can be done,” he said. “It has been done, it will need to be done again.”