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The pig patrol

March 1, 2008


Douglas Clement Editor, The Region

Most of the data used in this article were compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C., public interest group "dedicated to educating the American public about waste, mismanagement and inefficiency in the federal government." CAGW analyzes spending bills generated by Congress and identifies those items which it considers to be earmarks.

To be designated as "pork" by CAGW, a spending item must meet at least one of seven criteria, though most satisfy at least two. The criteria are:

  • Requested by only one chamber of Congress
  • Not specifically authorized
  • Not competitively awarded
  • Not requested by the president
  • Exceeds the president's budget request or the previous year's funding
  • Not the subject of congressional hearings
  • Serves only a local or special interest

The data have some flaws. For starters, there is no universal definition of an earmark, and different criteria can lead to different totals. CAGW's database also came with some hiccups; for instance, some earmarks attributed to North Dakota were actually bound for Notre Dame, in Indiana. Mistakes were also found in the Minnesota data that CAGW provided to the fedgazette.

Aside from such glitches, however, CAGW's data set appears to be one of the most comprehensive and consistent available to the public at large. The organization has tracked spending since 1991 and considers its data reliable at the state level since 1995, allowing for year-to-year comparison of earmark trends for over a decade.

There is little question that CAGW has an agenda—and a sense of humor. Its phone number is 1-800-BE-ANGRY, its Web site is filled with animated pigs, and the organization's mascot, Porky, dresses in a pink pig costume.

This bias could suggest some exaggeration regarding CAGW's measuring of pork barrel spending. But CAGW estimates might actually be conservative. The Congressional Research Service has estimated earmarks in every even year since 1994, as well as 2005. CRS's annual earmarks tally is consistently higher than CAGW's in every comparable year measured (see chart). CAGW's dollar estimates are also significantly lower than CRS's.

Chart: Annual Earmark Tally

Return to: Both sides of the pork trough


Douglas Clement
Editor, The Region

Douglas Clement was a managing editor at the Minneapolis Fed, where he wrote about research conducted by economists and other scholars associated with the Minneapolis Fed and interviewed prominent economists.