Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In order to stop the return of earmarking to Congress, Sens. Tom Coburn (R–Okla.), and Mark Udall (D–Colo.), are urging their fellow colleagues to support continuing the earmark moratorium in the Senate, in a letter circulated this week.

The White House Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as

Funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction… circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient.

Prior to the 2010 ban in the House, earmarks, better known as pork barrel spending, most often took the form of specific funding requests by members of Congress to benefit a particular location or recipient. The infamous Bridge to Nowhere is one of the most memorable such projects.

Opponents of the earmark ban argue that the practice is necessary to encourage lawmakers to work across the aisle on spending bills. That’s exactly the problem with earmarks: Lawmakers will exchange favors by granting political support and votes for each other’s projects. This practice is known as “logrolling” and explains part of why Congress continues to fund wasteful and inappropriate projects.

At their peak in fiscal year 2006, more than 15,800 earmarks were included in appropriations bills, accounting for almost $72 billion in federal spending. Even after transparency measures reduced the prevalence of earmarks in 2007, fiscal year 2010 appropriations bills still allocated $32 billion to 11,320 earmarks, based on data compiled by the Congressional Research Service.

Although Congress would likely have spent those billions regardless, earmarks can misallocate taxpayer dollars towards politically favored projects and companies that would not have been able to gain funding on their own merits. Indeed, earmarks further a culture of corruption in which political connections trump the national interest.

Yet, even with the earmark ban in place, lawmakers continue to allocate funding toward wasteful, failed, and inappropriate federal programs. Moreover, Congress is abdicating its oversight role by failing to provide clear and objective criteria by which agencies should allocate appropriated funds. Without such requirements, congressional pork is replaced with presidential pork, which merely shifts the activity underground. Administrative earmarks are much less transparent and the congressional earmark ban alone does not eliminate the practice. Broader reforms are necessary to improve government programs and save taxpayer money.

Coburn acknowledges as much, writing in The Wall Street Journal this week:

Congress’s power of the purse is the most underutilized power in Washington not because of the earmark ban, but because Congress is unwilling to do the hard work of passing appropriations bills, drafting clear legislation that tells bureaucrats what to do, and then conducting oversight over the programs it creates.

Pork may be a staple on many families’ dinner tables, but in Congress it should be restricted to the cafeteria.