Tax time is approaching and millions of Americans are facing tough economic times, but that hasn't stopped Congress from loading spending bills with pork.
This year's "Pig Book" from the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste details some of these congressional earmarks : $7.5 million spent on grape and wine research; $460,000 for research on hops; and $72,000 for the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, S.C., to name just a few.
"When the Democrats took over, they said they were going to cut the number and cost of earmarks in half," said Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group. "That simply hasn't been done."
Schatz calls the desire for pork a bipartisan problem. "Members of Congress argue about a lot of different issues, but they don't disagree all that much about pork-barrel spending and earmarks."
Congressional members stuffed 11,610 spending projects -- the second highest total ever -- to benefit their home districts into the 2008 fiscal year budget.
All told, Congress has set aside $17.2 billion in earmarks -- a 30 percent increase from last year.
And none of that spending goes through the normal vetting process. Much of it is not specifically authorized, competitively awarded or the subject of congressional hearings.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., offered an amendment this year to impose a one-year moratorium on earmarks. It failed, 71-29. After the Senate made clear its intentions to pursue pork, members of the House eagerly joined the hunt. So many last-minute requests for earmarks were made that a House Appropriations Committee Web site froze and the deadline was extended.
"As a result of the massive influx of requests being submitted today, the Appropriations Committee Web site is experiencing unavoidable access and processing delays," the staff director for the committee wrote to members of Congress. "In order to accommodate member offices attempting to input data, any request submitted by 11:59 p.m. on Monday, March 24, will be considered as having been submitted 'on time' for purposes of consideration by the committee."
Which Presidential Candidates Pull in the Pork?
Other 2008 pork includes:
$3 million for "education programs that promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf"
$188,000 for the Lobster Institute in Maine (which includes TheLobstercam.com)
$3 million for shrimp research
$4.8 million for wood utilization research
$148,950 for the Montana Sheep Institute
$742,000 for olive fruit fly research -- $211,000 of which will be spent in Paris
"Regardless of what everyone thinks about the French -- and everyone has an opinion -- this is not a federal government responsibility," Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste said.
The organization bestowed its "Porker of the Year" award on Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chair of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
"Murtha has long been known inside the Beltway for using threats, power plays and backroom deals to control spending decisions," Citizens Against Government Waste said in a news release.
The group noted a number of notorious incidents with Murtha and pork in the last year, including an incident during the summer when Murtha lost his temper with a Republican congressman who attempted to challenge a $23 million earmark for a Murtha pet project, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., claims Murtha told him, "I hope you don't have any earmarks in the defense appropriations bills because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever. … That's the way I do it!"
In September, Congressional Quarterly noted that the House Appropriations Committee, per new rules instituted by Democrats, listed its earmarks in its reports, though they were difficult to read and not easily searchable.
A reporter noted "the difficulty of piecing together which members got how much money for which projects in his bill," said the CQ article.
The article continued: "Murtha answered abruptly before walking away. 'So, you have to work,' he said. 'Tough s--.'"
As for this year's presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is the porker of the pack, having secured 281 earmarks worth a whopping $296.2 million.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., received 53 earmarks for his state, worth $97.4 million.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has never asked for an earmark.