Tax money spent on small projects that only benefit one congressional district or region are often slipped into legislation at the 11th hour -- a time-worn and much criticized part of Congress known as pork-barrel spending.
Each year the Citizens Against Government Waste exposes that pork in its annual "Congressional Pig Book." The group had no problem sniffing out the pork this year, although it says it "will be a smaller pig than usual."
The private, nonpartisan organization says that reduction is a welcome change from past pork-barrel spending levels.
Why the change in 2006 spending? Partly because only two of the 11 proposed spending bills were passed last year, giving legislators fewer places to hide the pork. Also, the new Democratic Congress enforced a moratorium on earmarks, the projects that members slip into appropriations legislation usually without the full scrutiny of Congress.
Even so, the group says "there is still enough pork to cause concern for taxpayers."
The "Pig Book" lists at least $2.4 billion in pork in 2006. Among the 24 projects cited in the Defense and Homeland Security Appropriations Acts were some old favorites, projects that have received taxpayer funding in past years and some new ways to spend taxpayer dollars:
$5.5 million for the Ernest Gallo Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, which studies alcohol and drug abuse on the brain. The organization said, "There is no mention of any defense-related research. Apparently, they will serve no pork before its time."
$1.65 million to a Seattle firm working on ways to improve the shelf life of vegetables.
$1 million to aid in the search for extraterrestrial aliens.
Of course, what one critic calls "pork," someone else may regard as money well spent. For example, the "Pig Book" points to $59 million for medical research projects, which many Americans might consider a perfectly good way to spend their tax dollars.
But Citizens Against Government Waste says "as important as this research may be, there is no mention why these programs should receive money from the Department of Defense."
One program, which weighs heavily on taxpayers in this category, is $1.35 million for the Obesity in the Military Research Program.
The "Pig Book" notes that $5.3 million has been set aside to study marine mammals. Again, some taxpayers may have no problem funding research into why whales behave as they do. But the organization says that it has no place in a defense bill and that the money could better be spent on American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Repeatedly, the "Pig Book" cites spending projects that it acknowledges may serve a useful purpose. But it says too often these projects were not adequately studied before Congress gave the green light. So, according to the organization, it is impossible to know whether the projects are justified or wasteful.
This year, Citizens Against Government Waste is both patting Congress on the back and worrying about a relapse to its old habits: "While taxpayers should celebrate a reduction in the number and cost of pork-barrel projects, there is still much work to be done to ensure that members of Congress do not return to their piggish ways in the future."