Amid the immigration wars and the trials and the general sense of exhaustion around Washington, it’s refreshing to find a good-old press conference inveighing against “pork,” the time-honored jibe at spending in somebody else’s Congressional district.

A handful of Republican House members last week spotlighted a report by Citizens Against Government Waste taking aim at “earmarks,” which specify particular state and local projects in appropriations bills — a practice banned by a Republican Congress in 2011, but brought back by Democrats in 2021.

It has to be said the visuals — an actor dressed in a pig costume — weren’t especially imaginative. For theater, the “Golden Fleece Awards” — bestowed by Wisconsin Democratic Sen. William Proxmire during a long congressional career from 1957-89 — were better.

Proxmire delighted in discovering obscure research grants in Defense bills and in transportation projects that sounded ridiculous, but when checked out by reporters actually had a plausible purpose.

Back then, it was all in good fun — not an attempt to highlight the existential crisis of a $35 trillion federal debt.

Earmarks play, at most, an extremely minor role. Yet Virginian Republican Rep. Bob Good fulminated at length on the debt without considering the role mammoth tax cuts and increased Defense spending might play.


What’s of greater interest to Maine is that two of the top five “offenders” are the state’s two U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and Independent Angus King.

It’s no surprise Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, brings home the bacon, nor that Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, like Collins a moderate in her caucus, is top-five material. But Collins is the current champion, with 231 earmarks totaling $576 million, a clear leader over runner-up Murkowski. King, a relatively junior senator who doesn’t even serve on the Appropriations Committee (Collins is ranking minority member), obviously has a knack for it.

It’s a funny thing about earmarks. In at least a theoretical sense, it’s hard to justify a new fire engine or veterans’ clinic in one specific town or city. Congress is supposed to be appropriating for the whole country, even-handedly. But earmarks were easier to criticize in Proxmire’s day. The budget process is now chaotic, with few appropriations bills ever approved by the Oct. 1 deadline.

In the current Congress, deadlines passed while Republicans were busy sacking Speaker Kevin McCarthy and replacing him with Mike Johnson, who’s opted as usual for continuing resolutions and omnibus bills.

What earmarks do provide is encouragement for voters to believe someone is actually listening to them in Washington. I’ve never heard anyone in Maine complain about a piece of largesse that King and Collins, or their predecessors, brought home.

Case in point: both Augusta and Waterville decided to restore their main streets to two-way traffic, slowing things down and making them more pedestrian-friendly. Augusta accomplished the aim by re-striping and replacing a traffic light at a cost of $100,000. Waterville’s project was much more involved, and cost $9 million. Enter Collins with the necessary earmark.


Earmarks can be seen as the grease that keeps the legislative mills grinding, the “sweeteners” that finally get bills out of committee and onto the floor. There’s probably a better way, but in the current state of government we’re not going to find it.

Nor did banning earmarks in 2011 work out as planned. The Republican House Speaker who engineered the change, John Boehner, was run out of town – the first in a succession of short-tenured Republicans who certainly couldn’t please most of the caucus, most of the time.

When we look for patterns, we can see that this is a method for Maine, with just 0.4% of the nation’s population, to punch above its weight. Our senators’ clout is much appreciated by their constituents.

And it’s not as if other federal spending is necessarily “fair.” When dollars poured into the Interstate Highway System in 1956, Maine became a “minimum receiver,” along with its northern neighbors, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Maine, geographically much larger, has 50% more “lane miles” to maintain than either New Hampshire and Vermont, but gets exactly the same amount in regular appropriations. So it’s understandable why individual senators look for opportunity. Democrat George Mitchell was quite adept, winning funding for the Coastal Connector in Topsham as a junior member.

As Senate majority leader Mitchell swept the field, he gained appropriations for the Downeaster passenger train and several major highway projects, including the Sagadahoc Bridge and the Casco Bay Bridge, which would have otherwise taken years for Maine Department of Transportation to fund.

In the end, one person’s pork is another one’s meat.

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