Bloomberg Economics made headlines last week when it disclosed that a supercomputer programmed to run millions of simulations about the trajectory of our federal debt found that, in 88 percent of all scenarios, the debt becomes unsustainable. That these results seemed startling enough to produce headlines is probably news in itself—an indication that, despite soaring budget deficits, many people until now believed that our government debt is manageable. Who can blame them? After all, the supercomputer spit out these results just a week after Congress and the White House cemented a deal for a $7.3 trillion budget, with the deficit swelling to $1.8 trillion by 2025, the Congressional Budget Office estimated. If Congress doesn’t worry about our debt, why should the average citizen?

Taming that enormous deficit will require lots of politically unpopular decisions, but in the new budget members of Congress couldn’t even restrain themselves from feeding on billions of dollars of pork through earmarks—a budget tactic that Congress retired more than a decade ago, only to resurrect it a few years ago. Ranging from the frivolous to the unnecessary to the untested, this federal spending on local projects, coming just a few years after Washington showered states and cities with hundreds of billions of largely unnecessary Covid “stimulus” dollars, shows how unserious both parties are right now about tackling the national debt.

Even under the best budget circumstances, earmarks have few good justifications. In 2007, the White House Office of Management and Budget defined them as funding that “circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process,” giving members of Congress the freedom to hand out dough to their favorite local projects and programs. Congress eliminated earmarks in 2011 after recently elected Tea Party Republicans savaged the budget tactic and swore that they wouldn’t support pork. President Barack Obama subsequently vowed to veto any bill that contained earmarks, though his own party fought him. For a decade, earmarks largely disappeared, though some in Congress tried to bring them back by renaming them. Democrats, who controlled Congress in 2021, finally succeeded, rebranding earmarks as “Community Project Funding.” Since then, both parties have feasted on the budgetary pork. Though the spending on these items represents only a small part of the gigantic federal budget, the hypocrisy of earmarks at a time of massive government overspending undermines the credibility of both parties’ stated desire to tame spending.

Most of the pork is contained in a $460 billion spending package that finances federal programs overseen by departments like Commerce, Energy, Interior, and Transportation. Kentucky senator Rand Paul, an earmarks critic, says that his staff has identified more than 6,000 projects with $14 billion in funding from the bill that qualifies in legislative terms as “member items”—another euphemism for earmarks—which Congress directs the federal bureaucracy to support in the name of individual legislators. Since the reemergence of this funding tactic, the Government Accountability Office has also begun issuing reports that track the spending, “to help ensure transparency.”

One criticism of these member items is that they go to communities that have no apparent need for them or are showing no sign of financial distress. Senator Paul, for instance, noted that the latest funding bill provides $4 million to build a waterfront walkway in Woodbridge, New Jersey, a town with median annual household income of $103,000. “You think maybe they could pay for their own boardwalk?” he asked. In other cases, wealthier communities have received money for projects traditionally financed by local governments—not Washington. Wellesley, Massachusetts, ranked as the nation’s fourth-richest community with a median annual household income well above $225,000, is receiving $3.6 million to make its local rail station easier to access for people with disabilities. Alexandria, Virginia, a wealthy community with family income topping $113,000, is getting $1 million for electric bus chargers, nearly $1 million for a “smart mobility lab,” and $850,000 for affordable housing. Neighboring Falls Church, Virginia, with a median annual family income topping $160,000, garnered $500,000 for “restoration” of a traffic signal at a local intersection.

Communities aren’t the only wealthy recipients of this federal largesse. Hundreds of these grants go to universities, including some of our richest, most well-endowed institutions. Columbia University is receiving $388,000 from the federal government to set up a mentorship program to reduce attrition among low-income students in upper Manhattan. Columbia, Senator Paul points out, has a $13.6 billion endowment, the ninth-largest in the nation. It hardly needs funding from our deeply indebted federal government for such a potentially worthy enterprise.

With these member items, the federal government ventures into spending realms that the Founding Fathers could hardly have imagined. Washington is distributing more than $13 million, for instance, to finance “bikeways” around the country. That includes a whopping $4 million for the Coastal Rail Trail bikeway, which will connect several communities in Southern California, and $1.2 million to resurface a path in Rhode Island. America is home to some 35,000 museums; a lucky 18 have managed to garner earmarks this year totaling about $8 million, including the Western Museum of Mining and Industry. The government is also giving out some $23 million via dozens of grants to organizations dedicated to stimulating entrepreneurship, incubating new businesses, and providing aid to existing small businesses. Of course, surveys consistently show that one of the principal challenges small-business owners say they face is government itself—taxes, regulations, and bad policies like deficit spending, which breeds inflation.

Senator Paul recently decided to emphasize the lunacy of earmark spending with a face-off called “March Earmark Madness,” which includes a bracket of some of the worst member items. Online voters got to pick between a $1.5 million grant to expand the online gaming industry and $150,000 to fund culinary training. On the other side of the bracket, a $1 million grant for a small Massachusetts community to operate “off the grid” competed with $1.5 million to boost “lobstering.” In the end, the winner (or loser, depending on your perspective), was a $1.5 million grant to an LGBTQ group to administer “cultural competency” training to medical staff in New York.

March madness, indeed—but in Washington, the tournament never ends.

Photo: Douglas Rissing/iStock/Getty Images Plus


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