Congress figured a way out of its partisan budget impasse by embracing the one thing all lawmakers can agree on - pork.
The new, $555 billion mish-mash of a federal spending bill completed in Washington last week contains tens of billions in pork-barrel projects. It shows that Democratic leaders had very limited success with their pledge to get tough on such spending.
When Democrats took control of Congress last January, they promised to wage an all-out war on "earmarks." That's the name for spending items inserted into bills to benefit specific companies or projects, usually in the districts of the lawmakers who sponsored them.
There was good reason for the Democrats' pledge to get tough on pork-barrel spending. In the 12 previous years of Republican control of Congress, the number of earmarks had tripled to nearly 13,000, costing about $64 billion at their peak.
The new Congress made progress, but not much.
The total number of earmarks in all spending bills is more than 11,000 - a decrease of about 17 percent. The total cost is at least $15.3 billion. While that's headed in the right direction, it's not nearly enough.
The suspicion is that the first year of "getting tough" on earmarks will put the most noticeable dent in the pork barrel, and that Congress will backslide on its promises after that.
The last-minute process for approving these spending bills created more opportunities for earmarks.
Although Democrats succeeded in requiring sponsors of earmarks to be identified, many lawmakers waited until the end to "air drop" their projects into bills. That left opponents of earmarks very little time even to
the items in the 1,400-page bill, much less fight them on the floor.
Local lawmakers weren't shy about getting in on the action. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) obtained at least 184 earmarks in one bill alone, including many grants for universities.
House members from both parties in the Philadelphia region sponsored earmarks totaling tens of millions of dollars. Among the larger items were $18.5 million to dredge the Delaware River and $2.45 million for SEPTA to buy hybrid-electric buses.
Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, snared at least $163 million in pork-barrel projects to lead all House members. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) snuck $96 million in special projects into the budget.
As we've said before, not all earmarks are bad. But there are still plenty of obvious turkeys in the new budget, such as $700,000 for a bike trail in Minnesota. The continued high volume of these no-bid expenditures shows that lawmakers must try harder to limit their impact on the budget.