In a $3.8 Trillion Budget, Pork Is Hardly the Biggest Problem

The nasty political atmosphere in Washington is about to get toxic. In testimony before Congress today, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called on Republicans to help the Obama administration tame the budget deficit, expected to hit a record $1.56 trillion. The gap is still slated to top $1 trillion even with the spending freeze proposed by Obama. But then Geithner promptly blamed the Bush administration for leaving a trail of unpaid bills that created the current fiscal mess."These huge deficits are the result of the prior administration's decision to enact large tax cuts and a prescription drug bill without paying for them," according to his written testimony. Of course, the Republicans likened Obama's spending plans to the failed policies of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

No one can deny that a budget with a $3.83 trillion bottom line has a fair amount of waste embedded in it. But like pornography, art and classic rock, government waste is in the eye of the beholder. No sooner had the ink run dry on Obama's spending plan for fiscal 2011 (which begins Oct. 1, 2010) than the search for unneeded government spending had begun, a process that has gone on since the days of George Washington.

Pork, or earmarks (money directed to congressional members' pet projects that critics say are of questionable value), costs the government about $20 billion a year, which a tiny fraction of overall spending. But it's still a problem, according to some experts, because these types of small, unnecessary programs lead politicians to waste even bigger amounts. And that's resulting in the fiscal chaos we have today.

Tougher to Find These Days

Pressure to wring more efficiencies from government is bound to intensify as Obama's popularity continues to slip and the Republicans feel emboldened following a series of high-profile wins including the Massachusetts senate race. Government spending clearly continues to worry many Americans who are struggling as the economy digs itself out from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Isabell Sawhill, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, says the search for pork is getting more difficult because there's less of it. "There is no line item called 'pork'," she says. "That does not mean we don't have a huge fiscal problem, but it is isn't driven by pork."

Indeed, Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste points out that earmark spending is down 25% to 30% in Obama's proposal. Still, stories about government waste attract considerable attention in the media because they're easy to understand for average voters, who have to figure out their own household budgets, he says.

"Absolutely Unsustainable"

But eliminating even the most wasteful government programs in Washington is practically impossible because some member of Congress often emerges as a white knight to save it from the fiscal chopping block. Sawhill dealt with this reality in the early 1990s when she was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and "tried to get rid of a lot of stuff," in her words.

Fiscal conservatives, though, argue that controlling pork is needed to bring needed fiscal discipline to the federal government. Under Obama's plan, spending is expected to decline from 24.7% of GDP in 2009 to 23.7% by 2020. But Americans for Tax Relief notes that when Bill Clinton left office, federal spending was 18.2% of GDP and falling.

"The current budget outlook is absolutely unsustainable," says Brian Reidl, senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "There is definitely a reason for pessimism... It's the culture of pork that leads lawmakers not to guard taxpayer dollars."
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