How to Hide Up to $12 Billion in Pork Barrel Projects

It’s been interesting to follow the debate over earmarks in appropriations bills. Everyone knows that they increased dramatically in recent years, to the point where public anger at the practice led Congress to consider ‘reforms.’ There seems to be little confidence that Congress has really learned the lesson though, so the discussion about earmarks in Barack Obama’s risky spending scheme has been illustrative.

Barack Obama promised no earmarks (but the promise was hollow). Nancy Pelosi promised no earmarks in the bill when it passes the House. And more recently House Democratic leader Jim Clyburn owned up to the fact that Democrats intend to make sure that Congress gets its earmarks, even if it has to disguise them.

Now that the public has had the chance to review the Democrats’ spending bill, it’s not hard to spot them.

The trick is, you need to know what it means when Congress requires an ‘operating plan,’ ‘expenditure plan’ or ‘spending plan.’ Those three phrases appear in the bill a total of 17 times. In each case, Congress is requiring the agency that receives an appropriation to come up with a plan for distributing the money before it begins to spend.

Once the bill is signed into law, agencies that receive these funds are going to get on the phone to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to discuss what needs to be in the spending plan. The Congressional power barons will provide details about which pork-barrel projects should be included. Once they settle on the list of earmarked projects, as well as the framework of the rest of the plan, the Agency head in question will send the plan to the Appropriations Committees, and as long as everything checks out, the money starts to flow to the the districts Congress selects.

For example, page 202 of the bill begins the section on Americorps — which receives $160 million in this bill. On the very next page of the bill you see this:

Provided further, That the CEO shall provide the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate a fiscal year 2009 operating plan for the funds appropriated under this heading prior to making any Federal obligations of such funds in fiscal year 2009, but not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, and a fiscal year 2010 operating plan for such funds prior to making any Federal obligations of such funds in fiscal year 2010, but not later than November 1, 2009, that detail the allocation of resources…

The 17 mandates for ‘plans’ that I have found so far (and there may be more of them, described in different language), require that the agencies detail how they will spend more than $12 billion before they start doling out cash.

Let me stipulate that not all $12+ billion will be spent on pork-barrel projects. A significant portion will be spent on projects judged by their merits. However, the requirement for spending ‘plans’ is only one way to hide pork-barrel spending. Other projects will be covered in the report(s) that accompany this bill; still others will be established in other ways. The likelihood is that there will wind up being more than $12 billion in Congressionally-mandated projects in the bill overall, even if Democratic leaders deny it. It’ll be fun sniffing out the rest.