What do earmarks and dinosaurs have in common?
Both are extinct, but their skeletons still remain.
Last week, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) joined the ranks of Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) in calling attention to wasteful public spending. This time Flake draws attention to authorized in legacy earmarks through his own report titled “Jurassic Pork.” The report highlights nearly two dozen examples of projects once funded by earmarks that now receive federal funds through other means.
As Senator Flake explained:
This report, Jurassic Pork, examines many of the congressional earmarks and related spending that persist to this day. Fossilized within the federal budget, these projects continue to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Many have even outlasted the terms of the politicians who created them.
The report’s release was timed to draw attention to the introduction of Flake’s Jurassic Pork Act. The bill would rescind funding for “orphan” earmarks – those with less than 10% of funds obligated 10 years after enactment – unless the head of an agency could show that the funds were about to be spent within 12 months, and any rescinded funds would be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). By August, this could, according to Flake's office, be more than $2 billion in funds. Additionally, it would have agencies produce annual reports to Congress on earmarks and unobligated balances and require the Department of Transportation to report on any earmarks rescinded under the bill.
Some examples of the earmarks highlighted in his report are:
- Almost $6 billion in Highway Earmarks Remain Unspent: A decade after the passage of the 2005 highway bill, most of its 1,282 earmarks have reached “orphan” status, meaning less than 10% of their authorized funding amount has been spent after 10 years. This is less than a fourth of the 6,000 earmarks of their kind which “[sit] idle in an account at the Department of Transportation.”
- Taxpayers Spend Millions on Colorado Dino Buses ($36 million): VelociRFTA, the $46 million dinosaur-themed bus transit system that runs between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, has received $36 million in federal funding since the 2011 moratorium on earmarks.
- Pennsylvania Train Collection Burns Taxpayer Dollars ($27 million): Steamtown, USA, the transplanted home of a “collection of historic trains” in Scranton, PA, has received $27 million in National Park Service (NPS) allocations since 2011. It has been described by the New York Times as a “second-rate collection of trains and a third-rate site.”
- Congress Ensures ‘Unsuitable’ Park is Built Anyway ($350,000 each year): The Paterson Great Falls National Park, judged not to have “historical significance” or “any determined national significance” in 2006, has received $350,000 from the NPS each year since Congress granted its park status in 2009.
- A Healthy Pour of Fed Funds for Grape Genetics ($2 million each year): The Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service spends $2 million each year researching how to manipulate grape genes to produce higher quality and yield for the $160 billion U.S. wine and grape product industry
- Greater than Requested Funding for Hawaii’s East-West Center ($17 million each year): Although Hawaii’s East-West Center’s Asian-American exchange programs, research, and scholarships are not valueless destinations for federal resources, it “has received $104.5 million more than was requested on its behalf” over the last 18 years with the Hawaii delegation boosting its support by nearly $6 million in 2015 even though the Center has been quite successful in securing private funding in recent years.
Senator Flake’s effort goes further than other reports of its kind by offering a concrete solution which could recover as much as $2 billion for the HTF. That money could buy a little time for the highway fund, but Congress would still need to find a long-term solution for sustainable highway funding.