Even in an economic crisis, earmarks inspire more debate than consensus in Washington.
Citizens Against Government Waste on Tuesday released its annual "pig book," a rundown of earmark spending that slams lawmakers for funneling $19.6 billion into pet projects in fiscal 2009, a 14 percent increase over 2008. David Williams, the group's vice president of policy, argued that the hundreds of anti-tax tea parties planned for today -- tax day -- are a sign that the public is fed up with wasteful spending.
"It's no coincidence that there are going to be tea parties all across this country," he said at a press conference Tuesday. "This pig book is why."
But if the report's goal was to shame lawmakers, the biggest offenders were anything but contrite.
"We're honored," said David Helfert, communications director for Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. "The congressman will be very pleased to learn that he's topped the list. He feels that it is absolutely appropriate for members of Congress to make spending decisions about federal money."
Abercrombie ranked first in earmark spending among House members, raking in $256.8 million for 44 projects in his district. Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, who was fourth with $183.5 million in earmarks for 87 projects, was similarly unapologetic.
"The congressman views securing federal funding for critical projects [as] one of his main duties representing Northern Virginia in the Congress," said Moran spokesman Austin Durrer. "This confirms he's been doing a good job for his constituents."
Thad Cochran, R-Miss., led all senators with 231 projects totaling $653 million. Alaska was the top state, with $322.34 in pork spending per capita.
Citizens Against Government Waste's press conference featured mascot "PigFoot" (a man in a pig costume), free rubber pig noses, two Vietnamese potbellied pigs named Winnie and Dudley, and an unmistakable message: Earmarks are bad. But some government watchdog groups say too much attention is paid to pork-barrel spending, which accounts for just a sliver of government expenditures.
"It's a good thing that there are watchdogs out there watching," said Marc Goldwein, the policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "My own criticism is that it's a little bit of a distraction from the big picture. We're talking tens of billions of dollars here, as opposed to hundreds of billions and trillions of dollars we're spending on entitlement programs."
Earmark spending has risen for the last two years, but it's still down from the record $29 billion it hit in 2006. Total earmarks dropped to $13.2 billion in 2007 thanks to a moratorium enforced by chief congressional appropriators David Obey, D-Wis., in the House and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., in the Senate. The ban has since been lifted, but public opposition to earmark spending and new transparency guidelines has shone a brighter light on the practice.
Earmark requests are now made public before Congress votes on them, and the sponsoring member; amount and nature of the request; and name and address of the beneficiary must all be disclosed (which makes compiling the "pig book" that much easier). New requirements that went into effect last weekend mandated that lawmakers must post earmark request to their Web sites; so far, not all have complied.
National Journal's Jonathan Rauch argued in a March column that, because of recent and necessary reforms, the earmark application and review process "works better than much of what Washington does."
"Shouldn't there be a place in government for elected officials to exercise judgment in the use of taxpayer money?" Rauch wrote. "In fact, if you wanted to create a nonbureaucratic, transparent system of rapid-response grants for pressing local concerns, you would come up with something very much like today's earmarking system (and you'd call it 'reinventing government')."
Williams admits that the money is small compared with overall federal spending. So why the hot pink charts highlighting the billions spent?
"It's still money," he told NationalJournal.com.
Despite the group's efforts, Citizens Against Government Waste doesn't expect to kill off the earmarking process anytime soon. The group used to rent the PigFoot costume, but finally gave in a few years ago and bought its own suit to save money.
"It's usually at the dry cleaners for a few days before the pig book is released," Williams laughed. "It gets a little gamey in there."