Congress approved more than $5 billion in earmarks for fiscal year 2016, despite its self-imposed ban, according to a new report released by Citizens Against Government Waste.
"Pork-barrel spending is alive and well in Washington, D.C., despite claims to the contrary," the nonprofit organization said. This year marks the 24th consecutive year Citizens Against Government Waste has exposed wasteful spending via earmarks in its "Pig Book," and the fourth year since Congress banned the practice in 2010.
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The amount of pork-barrel spending is up over 17 percent from last year, when the group identified earmarks totaling $4.2 billion, including pet projects for "fish passage," "embryo adoption awareness," and abstinence education.
Pet projects that snuck their way through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 include $10 million for an energy program that completed its mission in 1981; $25 million for a Pentagon STEM program for kids; and $163.9 million for the "Fund for the Improvement of Education," which President Obama did not request funding for in 2011 or 2012.
In all, the report identified 123 earmarks totaling $5.1 billion, a nearly 90 percent increase since fiscal year 2014, which Citizens Against Government Waste called "disturbing."
"Unfortunately, the earmark moratorium has not only failed to eliminate earmarks, but also has rendered the process patently less transparent," the report said. "There are no names of legislators, no list or chart of earmarks, and limited information on where and how the money will be spent. Earmarks were scattered throughout the legislative and report language, requiring substantial detective work to unearth each project."
"While the lower number and cost of earmarks are an improvement relative to many prior years, transparency and accountability have regressed immeasurably," the report said.
The report includes a $10 million earmark for high energy cost grants though the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal-era program intended to provide farmers with electricity. The program was renamed the Rural Utilities Services after it accomplished its goal over three decades ago.
"By 1981, 98.7 percent electrification and 95 percent telephone service coverage was achieved," the report said. "Rather than declaring victory and shutting down the REA, the agency was transformed into the RUS, and expanded into other areas."
The majority of earmarks came through the Department of Defense, including $125 million for two earmarks for the National Guard Counter-Drug Program, a duplicative program already addressed by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and $25 million for the "Starbase Youth Program."
The program has cost taxpayers $94 million to provide training in science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—to at-risk youth at military bases since 2001. Citizens Against Government Waste noted that STEM is one of the most duplicative efforts by the federal government, stretching across 13 agencies with 209 programs.
The Government Accountability Office found in 2012 that 83 percent of STEM programs overlapped with another.
The Pentagon also received $20 million for "alternative energy research." Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a long time supporter of the group’s "Pig Book," has disparaged the Pentagon’s alternative fuel efforts in the past, saying the Navy spent $400 per gallon for approximately 20,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel.
The report also found $8 million for an aquatic plant control program, and $5 million for the State Department’s "Asia Foundation," which is "committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia."
In order to be included in the report appropriations had to have been listed as an earmark in the past, making the total number cost of earmarks "quite conservative," the group said.
The spending list includes projects that greatly exceeded its previous year’s funding, were only requested by one chamber of Congress, not specifically authorized, not competitively awarded, not requested by the president, were not subject to congressional hearings, or served only a local or special interest.
"Earmarks create a few winners (appropriators, special interests, and lobbyists) and a great many losers (taxpayers)," Citizens Against Government Waste said. "They contribute to the deficit directly, by tacking on extra funding, and indirectly, by attracting votes to costly legislation that might not otherwise pass."
"Earmarks corrupt democracy by eclipsing more important matters in the minds of legislators and voters," the group said.