Jurassic Pork: Earmarks Alive and Well Despite Ban

Sen. Flake releases report documenting how earmarks have survived

June 11, 2015

Before Jurassic World hits theaters this weekend, a Republican senator is telling Americans about the resurrection of another relic thought to be extinct: pork barrel spending.

Continuing in the tradition of former Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who called earmarks the "gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington," Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) released his Jurassic Pork report on Thursday as a reminder of the waste, fraud, and abuse in the earmark era, and a warning to never return to the practice.

"Like the cataclysmic event that killed off the dinosaurs, Washington politicians declared pork to be extinct five years ago when an earmark moratorium was enacted," Flake writes in the introduction to the report. "But something has survived."

"Fossilized within the federal budget, these projects continue to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars," he wrote. "Many have even outlasted the terms of the politicians who created them."

The 54-page report documents numerous examples of projects that continue to receive funding since the earmark ban took effect in 2011.

Though Flake makes numerous comparisons to dinosaurs in the report, none come as close to Congress’s funding of "Dino-buses."

The "VelociRFTA," a Bus Rapid Transit system in Colorado first received an $810,000 earmark in fiscal year 2010, prior to the ban. Nevertheless, the Department of Transportation (DOT) continued funding though its "New Starts" program, receiving $36 million in federal assistance since.

The so-called "Dino-buses" and bus stops include "amenities like wireless internet service, heated sidewalks, dinosaur footprints, and even replica dinosaur eggs to play on."

Steamtown USA, a railroad museum in Scranton, Pa., which first received an $8 million carve out in an appropriations bill in 1986, also continues to get taxpayer funding. Though called a "second rate collection of trains on a third-rate site" by the New York Times, Steamtown has been allocated over $27 million from 2011 to 2015.

The San Francisco Exploratorium, a science and art museum, has received over $20 million in federal grants since 2009, despite its annual revenue of $50 million.

"The museum has even gotten federal funding to find out if the federal funding was worth it, spending $84,000 for ‘measuring the benefits of museum experiences as preparation for future learning,’" the report said.

The report also takes aim at 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, whose preferred pet project while she was in the Senate was the "study of grape genetics."

Clinton secured earmarks to the benefit of a "select few wineries in New York since the mid-2000s," the report said.

Since the earmark ban, grape research has continued at $2 million a year between 2013 and 2015, even though the "U.S. wine, grape, and grape product industry is one of the most prosperous industries in the country, having accrued more than $160 billion in revenue in 2007 (the latest available data)."

Another example calls out Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) for earmarks to the American Ballet Theatre, located in the "richest" congressional district in the United States.

The ballet continues to be subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), receiving $330,000 since 2011. Funding previously came from earmarks, of which Rep. Maloney was "at least partially responsible for over $810,000" between 2005 and 2009.

Rep. Maloney then found herself "from the floor of the Capitol Building to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House," when she appeared on stage in a production of Romeo and Juliet in 2013, as "one of the ‘bodies’ at the Capulet family crypt," mourning the death of Juliet.

The report also targets $5.9 billion in funding for highway earmarks that have never been spent, sitting idly in the Department of Transportation’s coffers. So-called "orphan earmarks" are projects that after 10 years have only spent 10 percent of their budget.

"Out of the 1,282 orphan earmarks that have had less than 10 percent of their funding obligated, more than 120 projects allocate scarce highway trust fund dollars to bicycle paths, museums, or landscaping—wasting nearly $90 million in federal funds," the report said.

Flake is introducing legislation that would allow unused highway earmarks to go into the Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to become insolvent by the end of August.

The report recommends allowing members of Congress to offer amendments to strike spending on appropriations bills to enable the "public shaming" of wasteful spending.

Flake also calls for the expiration of the Defense Department’s "Rapid Innovation Program," which appears to be a way for Congress to continue pork barrel spending on defense, once earmarks were ended by the House in 2010. The program has continued similar projects that once received earmarks, totaling more than $1 billion.

"To be clear, the earmark moratorium successfully put an end to earmarking as we knew it," the report said. "However, this report highlights a number of federal projects and programs that received federal funding from past bipartisan congressional earmarks and on which legacy spending has continued."

"Given the persistent costs to taxpayers—and equally persistent calls to return to earmarking practices—taxpayers should remain vigilant when it comes to earmarks, their continued legacy costs, and any threat of returning to the practice," it said.