Earmarks as a Percentage of a Budget

by Russ Buchanan

Washington's open season on earmarks began in 2008. In a fit of fiscal responsibility, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle vowed to put an end to the costly pet projects and favor brokering that earmarks had come to represent to the public. Using the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" as the poster child of wasteful, pork barrel spending, Congress eventually did put an end to the practice after 2010. Often absent from the high-profile campaign against earmarks, however, was one salient fact: Their elimination probably wouldn't save much money.

Percentage of Total Budget

According to a 2010 ABC News article, earmark spending came to approximately $16.5 billion --0.2 percent of federal spending for fiscal 2010. Within that $16.5 billion were 9,129 separate earmark projects, with Republicans accounting for 40 percent and Democrats 60 percent. As Steve Ellis from Taxpayers for Common Sense pointed out in a CNN/Money article, although earmarks represented an infinitesimal portion of government spending, their death at least removed the facilitation of inequitable spending and opportunity for corruption that earmarks provided.

Still Alive in 2010

Earmark spending increased substantially in 1994 and hit its peak in 2006 at $29.5 billion, according to Reuters. After that record year, however, Congress reduced the number and expense of earmarks dramatically. Although earmark spending in 2010 was 40 percent less than in 2006, lawmakers still managed to dole out a few pricey earmarks to the Pentagon --historically, the largest single beneficiary of earmarks. Added onto the defense budget for 2010 was $2.5 billion for 10 C-17 military transport airplanes and $465 million for an F-35 jet engine that, according to ABC News, Pentagon officials had said they don't need.

Earmark Winners

The "Pig Book," published by the nonpartisan government watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, documents pork barrel spending every year and exposes the who's who of earmarking. According to the book, the lawmaker responsible for the most earmarks in either house in 2010 was Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran with 240 earmarks totaling $490 million; the largest earmarker in the House was Congressman Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota; and the state with the highest earmark dollar-to-person ratio was Hawaii.

Money Already Spent

In addition to earmarks' relatively small percentage of the federal budget, there is another reason the ban on earmarks will probably have little effect on overall government spending. According to an article at FactCheck.org, in many cases, the earmarked funding of lawmakers' pet projects came from money that had already been allocated to executive agencies. In other words, earmarks were simply channeling money that the government had already spent. According to Paul Cullinan of the Brookings Institution, earmarks were probably more of an "allocation problem than a spending problem."

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