There sure has been a lot of talk about pork this week.
Just a day after the "greased pig" analogy used by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the Senate floor, Citizens Against Government Waste released its annual "Congressional Pig Book" at a news conference that featured a pair of live pigs and a large costumed pig character in the ballroom of a Capitol Hill hotel.
That led Sen. Ted Cruz to quip "I've never done a press conference standing next to a 6-foot pig." The Texas Republican was joined by GOP Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, along with Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio at the event with CAGW President Tom Schatz.
The annual report highlights what the group considers by its own standards to be pork-barrel spending in the current fiscal year, though CAGW uses a broader definition of earmarks than the lawmakers themselves, which is why the report claims $2.7 billion worth of earmarks in the fiscal 2014 omnibus spending law, despite congressional moratorium on earmarks.
The release of the 2014 Congressional Pig Book comes just as another year of the appropriations process is kicking into high gear. The House has already begun to move bills to the floor, and Senate markups are set to get under way in the weeks ahead. There's also been no shortage of discussion about the earmark question lately.
"The rationale they're using is that we can't get legislation passed without earmarking. In other words, we can't pass legislation without corruption — without another 'bridge to nowhere,' without another study ... on the effect on the ozone layer of flatulence, without doling out money in the most corrupt fashion to members of Congress," McCain said.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the current moratorium on the practice will remain in effect in his chamber, and there's no real suggestion of a change in policy on the Senate side, though the two top Democrats in the Senate, Reid and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, don't like the current system.
Asked about earmarking on Tuesday, Reid highlighted his support for the practice.
"If there needs to be more transparency than what we had, then fine, do it. But it is wrong to have bureaucrats downtown make decisions in Nevada that I can make better than they can make," Reid said.
Both sides agree on one point: The current system is less transparent than the rules previously in effect that required publication of project tables, which journalists and other outside groups could translate into spreadsheets.
"Since earmarks were deemed to be non-existent in the FY 2014 omnibus bill, there are no names of legislators, no list or chart of earmarks, and limited information on where and why the money will be spent. Earmarks were scattered throughout the legislative and report language, requiring substantial detective work to unearth each project," the report said. "While the lower number and cost of earmarks are an improvement over prior years, transparency and accountability have regressed immeasurably."
Earmark foes like Flake say no amount of transparency would win their support for the practice.
"It didn't slow the process. You still had people willing to put their name next to some of these projects," Flake said of past years. "We don't want to return to those days. When you hear senators and congressmen these days saying, 'let's return; let's just do it more, a little more transparently, let's do it out in the open' — we don't want to return to those days."
Flake reminisced about all of his ill-fated efforts to slash individual earmarks on the House floor during his years serving in that chamber. Flake developed a reputation as a thorn in the side of senior appropriators on both sides of the aisle, offering amendment after amendment after amendment.
"I went to the floor literally hundreds of times and was never stopped once by our leadership, although it was painful, even challenging the speaker's earmark a couple of times, but they let it go," Flake said. "Now, I didn't win very many of those, but they let it go."
McCain said that if Republicans get the majority of the Senate, the critics of the appropriations process would force the chamber to work through spending bills, a tall order to be sure.
"I can assure you that there are a number of us, including my two colleagues, we will demand when we are in the majority. We will not not request, we will demand that we take up each of these 13 appropriations bills one by one and pass them and amend them and then finish them," McCain said. "And I guarantee you that we will finish them by Thursday night."
Photos of Cruz and Flake greeting the pigs at the event appear below: