It's been a lean winter on Capitol Hill. A moratorium on the insertion of pork-barrel projects into spending bills – declared by the new Congress – has slashed the amount of money for such earmarks by more than half.
That's the assessment of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), which has been crunching the numbers on congressional pork each year since 1991. Its annual "Congressional Pig Book," released this week, reports $13.2 billion in pork-barrel spending for the current fiscal year, down from $29 billion in 2006.
The plunge in the number of lawmakers' pet projects is more marked. Congress approved 2,658 pork projects for this year, down from a record 13,997 in fiscal 2005.
"While taxpayers should celebrate a reduction in the number and cost of pork-barrel projects, there is still much work to be done to ensure [that] members of Congress do not return to their piggish ways," said CAGW president Tom Schatz.
Pork spending plummeted this year primarily because lawmakers in the previous Congress managed to clear only two of 13 spending bills, after a handful of antipork Republican senators blocked the remaining bills. When the new Congress took up the bills this year, members agreed to ban earmarks until new rules were established for submitting them. If all 7,000 of the pet projects originally included in last year's unfinished bills had passed, they would have added $12 billion to the federal tab.
The pause in pork spending comes as antipork crusaders – public-interest groups, bloggers, and a small group of lawmakers – are beginning to lift the curtain on a behind-the-scenes process. Transparency brings restraint, they argue.
The next test of lawmakers' restraint is the fiscal 2008 budget cycle, say pork-bashers, and the weeks ahead are crunch time for new earmark requests.
The House Armed Services Committee, for one, wants all "comprehensive request packages" to be signed by members submitting them and delivered to the committee office by noon next Thursday.
New House rules require lawmakers to make earmark requests in writing, sign their names, and give the name and address of the earmark recipient and the earmark's purpose. The new Senate law requires identification of the member and the earmark recipient, and Senate committees must post an earmark request on the Internet within 48 hours after it is filed.
"The shorter 'Pig Book' is good news for taxpayers, but all the pork that was left out is still in the holding pen," says John Hart, spokesman for Rep. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, whose fight against a $231 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska spurred the reform drive. "Appropriations subcommittees are soliciting earmark requests in violation of the earmark moratorium."
Critics of pork-barrel spending charge that earmarks are the "gateway drug to overspending" and can be corrupting.
"The Republican Party lost the last election because of our failure to control ... the earmarking, which led then to corruption, which led then to members of Congress going to jail," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, at a briefing Wednesday.