A persistent post-Hurricane Katrina complaint is that the federal government’s slow response to the disaster stemmed from years of conservative hostility toward government. Starting with the Reagan revolution, this argument goes, conservative downsizing of federal agencies left Washington unprepared to cope with the storm’s massive destruction—and left New Orleans unprotected because of Washington’s failure to appropriate money to upgrade New Orleans’s levees.
But today’s federal government isn’t smaller but ever-growing. Its priorities, however, both parties have woefully distorted. Increasingly, Washington neglects key projects (like shoring up the New Orleans levees) in order to shower money on often-superfluous projects that local congressmen favor—ranging from wildlife refuges to tennis courts in rich communities to arts and folk festivals to a long list of other inessential initiatives. This pork-barrel waste, not smaller government, is what victimized New Orleans.
A look at the domestic budget reminds us that government didn’t fail in New Orleans because conservatives (or anyone else) have been downsizing it. On the contrary, federal discretionary domestic spending has grown nearly fourfold from 1965 to 2005 in constant (2001) dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaping from $140 billion to $420 billion after accounting for inflation. During that time period, our spending on natural resources and the environment has nearly doubled, from $14.5 billion to $27 billion; our transportation spending has soared seven-fold, to $60.5 billion from $8.6 billion; spending on community and regional development has leapt three-fold to $15.6 billion from $5.7 billion; federal discretionary spending on education, job training, and social services has risen sevenfold to $70 billion from $10 billion; and spending on general services to administer government has nearly doubled to $14.7 billion from $8.4 billion—again, all adjusted for inflation.
You might think that this enormous spending boost would ensure that crucial infrastructure work, such as New Orleans needed, gets done. But increasingly Congress uses the growing federal budget to serve the narrow interests of its members, circumventing the traditional budget process and skirting procedures for competitive bidding to insert favored projects directly into appropriations legislation. The process, euphemistically called earmarking, “has become so routine and so pervasive . . . that what was once a boon for the most powerful and favored has become an expected way for local governments and other institutions to get aid from Washington,” wrote the Congressional Quarterly last year.
Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that the number of such projects—that is, those that the president has not requested and that aren’t subject to competitive bidding or review by federal agency experts—has exploded from 1,439 in 1995 to 13,997 this year. And the number almost surely will be even higher next year: the gargantuan $286 billion highway bill passed in July includes a staggering 6,371 earmarks—ranging from a $200 million bridge in a remote section of Alaska (known as Don Young’s Bridge to Nowhere, after the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman who inserted it into the bill) to money for horse trails, parks, and museums. The price tag for this earmarking is equally astounding: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that earmarks totaled $46.6 billion in the 2002 federal budget, and that number has clearly increased considerably since then.
Pork-barrel spending is now so commonplace that virtually all state congressional delegations practice it enthusiastically—including those of flood-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi. While press reports have documented the federal government’s failure to appropriate money to upgrade adequately New Orleans’s flood defenses, Louisiana’s congressional delegation has scrambled to win millions for a host of less important, and sometimes downright trivial, projects. Among the delegation’s earmarks in the last several years: nearly $1 million for the national D-Day museum in New Orleans; three-quarters of a million dollars for highway sound barriers; $1 million to help the city of Crowley, Louisiana, with historic restoration and redevelopment of a major thoroughfare; $150,000 for preservation of an opera house; $500,000 for land acquisition in the Red River National Wildlife Refuge; $2.5 million for land on the Cat Island wildlife preserve; $100,000 for historic preservation of an Abbeville, Louisiana, theater; and $1.2 million for research at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans. Unless anyone thinks these kinds of expenditures don’t add up to real money, consider this: the Louisiana delegation’s earmarks in the recently passed highway transportation bill alone amount to more than $500 million.
Even more troubling than the rise of spending for trivial projects, perhaps, is that earmarking has created an almost haphazard approach to appropriations. Rather than having federal agencies overseeing and evaluating projects for their importance, pork gets into the federal budget based on how powerful a local congressman may be, or how well local officials sell their state’s representatives on favored projects. Again, Louisiana is a prime example. Scattered throughout the delegation’s earmarks over the last several years is financing for various transportation projects, including upgrading bridges, enhancing New Orleans’s port, and improving its local airports. Some or all of these projects may have been worthwhile. But given the persistent warnings about the consequences of a direct hurricane hit on New Orleans, they shouldn’t have taken priority over upgrading the levee system.
Is it possible to cure Congress of pork spending? After Katrina, members hardly seem in a reform state of mind. Despite a bill for hurricane relief and rebuilding estimated at north of $100 billion for the federal government, Congress is resisting finding savings in other parts of the federal budget—even though a core of fiscally conservative Congressmen have called for just such offsetting. Members of Congress spent the summer restoring many of the federal budget cuts that President Bush recommended in the spring. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, have ludicrously asked for $250 billion in federal spending for the state, including $50 billion in community development block grants—ten times more than the federal government now spends nationwide on the ineffective CDBG program, a notorious conduit for pork-barrel spending. (See “America’s Worst Urban Program,” Spring 2005.)
Perhaps Congress can learn from local officials. Some municipalities around the country have already offered to return to the federal government the spending earmarked for them in the federal transportation bill, if they get guarantees that the money will go to Katrina relief. Those communities are giving Congress a glimpse of how it should reform itself. Let’s hope our pork-fed congressmen take the hint.