President Trump ran on a campaign promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C., but it's hard to do that when there's so much pork in Congress.
Pork-barrel projects, or "earmarks," are funds lawmakers set aside for special programs that benefit their districts. They're often tucked away in massive spending bills and typically come with no congressional hearings and haven't been requested by a federal agency or by the White House.
Pork-barrel spending reached its peak in in fiscal 2006 at $29 billion. A slew of high-profile spending boondoggles like Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" and other earmarking scandals that resulted in jail terms for Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-CA), Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff contributed to Congress' decision in 2011 to put a moratorium on earmarks.
But those pigs are hard to kill.
"Earmarks are not only returning, the House has failed to extend the moratorium," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan federal spending watchdog.
Despite the current moratorium, lawmakers have found a loophole for their pork projects: appropriating a lot of money to a program within an exiting agency without specifying who will get the money.
"No one knows if members of Congress are contacting these agencies and saying send this to my particular district, or my state," Schatz said.
At the rate lawmakers are going now, it wont be long before we reach peak pork again, according to the CAGW's report.
"It only has to increase by $2.3 billion per year for the next 10 years. The way they’re going, that’s entirely possible," Schatz said.
In their 2017 "Congressional Pig Book" released Wednesday, CAGW uncovered 163 earmarks in the budget for fiscal 2017 costing $6.8 billion.
There were earmarks for things like the National Guard counter-drug program, which does the same job as the DEA; Aquatic plant control projects; and funding for the East-West Center in Hawaii, which the State Department has tried to cut.
In his budget blueprint for 2017, President Trump called for cuts to several of the programs cited by CAGW, and even President Obama recommended eliminating some of the same programs.
Shortly after Trump was elected, a group of House Republicans tried to issue an amendment to House rules that would overturn the moratorium on earmarks. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) postponed the vote on the amendment and no decision has been made yet. Senate Republicans in January voted to extend the moratorium.
"The fact that the House started to consider changing the moratorium right after this past election that was supposed to drain the swamp is not a real good sign for taxpayers," Schatz said.
So will earmarks ever end? Only if Congress permanently bans them, and that probably isn't happening any time soon.
Lawmakers have argued that under the Constitution, Congress has the power of the purse and should be able to distribute money and make deals based on that authority. But fiscal conservatives say that power, unchecked, will lead to corruption.
"All of the attempts to ban earmarks permanently [have] failed," Schatz said. "There has been legislation that would accomplish that objective, it’s never been approved by the House or the Senate and a moratorium is simply a suspension, not something that would prevent earmarks from reoccurring."