Here piggy, piggy, piggy ...
Geoff Metcalf interviews government-waste expert Tom Schatz on latest pork

Editor's note: Citizens Against Government Waste is a private, non-partisan, non-profit organization whose stated mission is to eliminate the waste, mismanagement and inefficiency in the federal government.

Nationally recognized as the single-best source of information on government waste, CAGW's membership has grown from 5,000 members in 1988, to over 1 million members and supporters today -- largely the result of taxpayers' growing frustrations with government officials squandering their hard-earned money.

Today, Geoff Metcalf talks with Tom Schatz, president of CAGW, about the porcine legislators and legislation currently crowding the public trough in a seemingly never-ending effort to fatten government programs at the expense of taxpayer piggy banks.

By Geoff Metcalf

Question: Citizens Against Government Waste has been around since 1984, but I didn't discover them until about 1991 -- when they started publishing their "Pig Book." It is a wonderful organization that has been described by Senator Robert Byrd as "a bunch of peckerwoods." Is that right, Tom?

Answer: That is exactly right.

Q: I recently reviewed the "Pig Book" and a lot of people were under the misconception that with a new fiscally-conservative administration in place that the usual, ubiquitous pork-barrel spending was at least going to be bridled a tad.

A: Well, the information that we have right now is the current fiscal year, 2001. So this all passed at the end of last year. It takes several months to compile it. So it is what is going on now -- not what Congress is considering at the moment for next year, which is 2002. People may not know off the top of their head that the fiscal year for the federal government actually starts October 1st of this year. It is very confusing. When you say fiscal year 2001, it actually ends at the end of September and then the next year begins. So all of the spending bills they are considering now are the ones that will fund next year's finances. And the president has made it pretty clear that if they go above what he's talking about, he will veto. But they have already had a record amount this year -- $18.5 billion in 2001.

Q: But who is your "Porker of the Month" right now?

A: "Porker of the Month" right now is Congressman Dick Gephardt who is out there mouthing off about ...

Q: Hold on -- I thought you had Tommy Thompson up on your website?

A: I'm giving you a little preview. Dick Gephardt will be up soon and this one is for his efforts to kill the tax cut -- which he immediately denied -- but he is basically on record and, of course, Senator Dashle could have gotten a runner-up award for his comments about the tax cut. The whole issue here is not that we are actually giving money back to the American people -- some of whom haven't even gotten their checks yet -- and some of these people in the capitol are talking about taking it back. But they are not talking about cutting spending. They are out there saying, "We just don't have enough money." They're whining about spending all this money and they are at a record level. Every year spending goes up, never goes down. It doesn't happen to the rest of us. We've watched a lot of things go down over the last year and half. Yet Congress just says, "Oh, we just don't have enough money -- we can't make ends meet." So this is one of the reasons we gave it to Congressman Gephardt.

Q: Actually, one of the things that happened this time is, once they saw that surplus hanging around, Congress just went ballistic -- "We've got this money -- we've got to spend it."

A: Oh, they sure did. And in this case, as I said, $18.5 billion is just pork. More than 6,300 projects -- that's almost a 50 percent increase over last year. And they were already going above those levels in the numerous bills that they have already considered in Congress. They've gone above the record levels of this year when they were looking at spending for 2002. And you mentioned Senator Byrd as one of them and he's essentially said, "Hey, I'm back in charge. I'm going to grab all I can."

Q: Some of the stories about him in the past have been amazing. I was reviewing your "Oinkers of 2001" and they are all egregious. I'll let you get into some of that in a little while, but the second to the last one on your list just blew me away. If there is anything that describes the arrogance, the unbridled hubris and myopia of these morons, it's Senator Thad Cochran. What's with this guy?

A: He likes naming things after himself.

Q: Fine! That's cool. Go out and start a foundation and raise the money. Don't feed your ego with $1.4 million of our money!

A: Yeah. We gave him "The Narcissist Award" but that could apply to most members of Congress who like naming things after themselves. It is interesting -- they are trying to produce a stamp for President Reagan but the rule is you must be deceased for 25 years -- and I honestly don't think any exceptions should be made. But members of Congress should have the same rule -- that they can't name anything after themselves until they've been deceased for 25 years.

Q: This Senator Cochran is a Republican from Mississippi -- 1.4 million for the Thad Cochran National Warm-water Aquaculture Center and the Cochran Fellowship Program. If you want a fellowship program, pal, go out and raise the money for it.

A: There's no question about it. And what they do is, they'll go out and say this is a somewhat private organization -- probably a 501(c)(3) non-profit group. And they'll raise some private funds, and then they'll go begging to the federal government to make up any shortfall. It's really a mess and very suspicious because then you become beholden to whatever the federal government wants you to do. And you go back to the federal government for more money and you lose your purpose. All this stuff really is a reminder to constituents to just go out and vote for the guy.

Q: I couldn't understand the Dr. Seuss thing. Fine if they want to have a memorial for him, that's cool, but why does federal money come into funding something like this?

A: Well, it's $550,000 this year and last year we gave another $400,000 -- we gave "The Green Eggs and Pork" award to this one. One of the easier things we thought about this year. But there is no reason. The family certainly has the money. You think about going to various places on vacation -- I know that many people would travel to Springfield, Massachusetts, to see the Dr. Seuss Memorial to see how their tax dollars are being spent.

Q: I've been to Springfield, Massachusetts. It's kind of like ice fishing. I've done it once and don't have to go back. Once upon a time, and it might have been six or seven years back when we were talking, there was a helium reserve that kept getting funded. Did that eventually go away?

A: They actually did sell that to the private sector. They finally unloaded it and privatized it. So that's at least one thing that the federal government did right -- of a few things. But that one did disappear. Of course, that was created originally to help us provide helium to dirigibles which were supposed to protect us in case of war -- and they meant World War I.

Q: Ever since 1984, when Peter Grace and Jack Anderson started your organization, your group has been bugging Congress about this pork spending. What if any kind successes have you enjoyed?

A: Well, we've helped save some $680 billion since 1984. So there is some significant amount that has been saved.

Q: Not bad for a bunch of "peckerwoods."

A: Yeah, not bad. We tend to get under the skin of the members. We do provide a conscience here in Washington. And now that they are kind of whining about not having enough money, this is a real good time for people to wake up -- times are a little tougher than they were a year ago -- the market's down, spending's up -- we're going the opposite way of the stock market here in Washington. And I think people should be a little more outraged about the reports of excess spending in Washington. Everybody's paying attention to the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy thing. Obviously it is a real tragedy but over a longer term, we are all affected by what happens with our money.

Q: And the key point here is: It is our money!

A: And you have to remind them that it's our money. They think of it as the government's money and they spend it like water.

Q: I remember around a year ago when there was a proposal of returning some of the surplus. At that time, President Clinton basically said, "Well what if they don't spend it right?" Hey! It's our money! If we want to squander it on beer, videos or ammunition, we're entitled to do that.

A: Not according to Bill Clinton and many others in Washington. You're not smart enough to make that decision for yourself.

Q: Well, we are apparently dumb enough to let them steal it from us in the first place.

A: That is definitely our fault. Some people get upset when I say that, but it is true. Everyone sitting out there who is not e-mailing or writing to their congressmen or senators and saying, "What are you doing with my money? And I want you to be more accountable and let me know what's going on. And I want you to stop wasting it." You're at fault when you congratulate your congressman for bringing home some pork-barrel project.

Q: Somebody is paying for it. By the way, I need to touch on two points. First I want to inform readers Citizens Against Government Waste is an equal opportunity, non-partisan organization. If you take a look at their "Hall of Shame," you will see that it is peopled with both Republicans and Democrats who are equally egregious. The second point is, one man's pork is another man's bacon. Of this 46 percent increase you talk about -- the $18.5 billion -- what kind of increase does that represent in say the last 10 years?

A: The chart certainly goes up. When we first began the "Pig Book" 10 years ago in 1991, I believe the total was between $6 billion to $7 billion. So, obviously, there is a very significant increase over that time.

Q: Has there been any year in which there has not been an increase in pork?

A: There is -- and although I don't have it in front of me, there is a chart on the web site. There may have been one or two years where it went down, but not by much. In the last couple of years, it has gone up every year and it is a trend that reflects the growing amount of money that is coming to Washington. They like to spend it. They don't like to give it back.

Q: I was looking at some of your "Hall of Shame" recipients: Tommy Thompson, Gray Davis, Senator Chafee (the younger), Jim Jeffords, Arlen Spector and others. The Tommy Thompson thing -- do you really think you guys were fair on that one? Basically, you are ragging on him for changing the name of a department.

A: Well, HCFA, which is the Health Care Finance Administration, people knew or didn't know -- they thought of Medicare and Medicaid, they didn't know what agency administered the program. So it didn't seem to us that it was worth the expense of changing the name. You change the approach -- and they are doing some of that. We did get an interesting response from the Department of Health and Human Services -- we got their attention. And they are making very sure that as they move forward on reforms that we're aware of it as well as the American people. So we just thought it was kind of a silly way to start out a new administration. You know: Hold a contest to create a new name for agency? HCFA is just not a nice sounding name. It just seems a little silly. Tommy Thompson is a good man. He was a good conservative governor in Wisconsin. And we want to be an equal opportunity offender and this just seemed like something that wasn't really helpful in reforming the program.

Q: You mentioned Gephardt is your next "Porker of the Month" and he was your guy in February of last year. I know Bob Byrd has been a frequent visitor to your list. Is there any member of Congress who stands out head and shoulders among the rest as the major "porker"?

A: Oh it is tough to say. And it certainly is bi-partisan. Senator Byrd, Senator Stephens who is the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, of course, was the chairman during the time that Republicans were in charge over in the Senate. The two of them were just huge abusers of the system. For example, last year Senator Stephens took home 30 times the national average of pork per person -- pork per capita in the country. Alaska was just getting huge amounts of money -- over $760 per person.

Q: And the answer to why they can do that is, "because they can." Like Willie Sutton said in response to the question, "Why do you rob banks?" "Because that's where the money is."

A: Yeah. Stephens was chairman of the committee and he and Senator Byrd were pretty good to each other during that period of time. It is a game that they play. And it is very intricate and there are lots of people in Washington who make their living actually putting these deals together.

I recently discovered why these lobbyists that push for these multi-million-dollar appropriations projects live in huge houses. They charge a fortune each month for people to get on board and they use all the contacts they have on Capitol Hill. There are a lot more people working to go out and spend our money than there are people like Citizens Against Government Waste trying to stop them from spending.

Q: Listeners and readers get ticked off and scream for accountability. I remind them you guys are doing half the job in identifying the waste and pork, but it really is incumbent on constituents to hold the pols feet to the fire. Where is the outrage?

A: Well that's the problem. There aren't enough people who are calling up radio shows, contacting members of Congress -- people are very busy with their lives -- they don't have an awful lot of time to think about all this. Until something happens that affects you directly, you really don't spend the time to look at it. Maybe at tax time you get upset -- if you pay quarterly taxes as a small business you get upset -- but other than that on a day-to-day basis, you've got to take the time to pick up the phone. Now it's easy to e-mail. People are on line all the time. Fire off an e-mail to your congressman or senator and let them know. They will pay attention if enough of them come in.

Q: What were the three areas in this last budget where pork increased the most?

A: First, we had Treasury-Postal Services increased over 500 percent, Foreign Operations more than 160 percent and Interior only a mere 86 percent.

Q: And when you take a look at Interior, they went from $332 million to $616 million. Go back to what Everett Dirkson said, a million here a million there and pretty soon you're talking real money.

A: It's a huge amount of money for some really stupid things.

Q: For example?

A: Well one from Senator Byrd's state -- $5.3 million for an extra dormitory at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center. They didn't even need it. This is a resort -- state-of-the-art work out facility, daycare service, lodges with fireplaces and living rooms, and then the Fish and Wildlife Service rents this out to other federal agencies and counts the money coming in as an offset to the cost. Can you imagine that bookkeeping in a company where one division charges the other and they count it as income to the company? How fast would they be in jail?

Q: What was the deal where Trent Lott got over $400 million for some weapons system that the Navy didn't even want?

A: Yeah $460 million for an amphibious assault ship -- it's the third installment on a $1.5 billion ship which the Pentagon doesn't want for another several years -- and, of course, Secretary Rumsfeld is now doing a top-to-bottom review and will reduce some of the spending but increase it somewhere else. Who knows if we're going to need this thing in five years. So Lott just went ahead. His father used to work at the shipyard in Pascaloga where Senator Lott literally lived across the street from it. I'm sure Mississippi has more problems than just throwing the money in to build just one ship.

Q: If somebody is on an appropriations committee, obviously their district is going to score. If someone is a freshman legislator, they're probably out of luck. How does it break down nationally? Is there one region than enjoys excessive largess and another that gets the short end of the stick?

A: No. It's pretty much spread around the country. If you look at the members of some of the smaller states, they seem to grab a lot more money. $480 million for Alaska alone compared to $520 million for all of California which ranked 35th. On any basis, that's a huge amount of money for the state of Alaska. Hawaii $470 million, Mississippi $673 million -- so you can see the large amounts going out to these states that have powerful leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Q: Tom, I'd like to run through some of your "Oinkers of 2001." This "Pulp Friction Award" is kinda strange. Please tell our readers what they are going to spend $12 million researching?

A: Wood. We have been researching wood for many, many years. Almost half of that $5.8 million is for something called "wood-utilization research" -- and, at this point, it is up to nine states (it used to be six states) since 1985. Sixty-two million dollars has been sapped from the taxpayers for wood utilization research.

Q: What the heck do they spend $62 million on?

A: I do not know. Usually when you do research in the private sector you come up with a conclusion -- and you either have a product or you don't. It's not like they're finding a cure for cancer here. They are researching wood. By the way, the Department of Agriculture doesn't even ask for this money. These are called "special research grants" and, in this case, the department asked for $6 million -- Congress threw in $85 million -- so you're talking about something 13 or 14 times the original request for something about which there are a lot of questions regarding the usefulness of this research.

Q: You mentioned Alaska previously. Senator Ted Stephens -- what did he get $480 million for?

A: This is his total. We gave him "The American Expense Award" -- don't leave Nome without it! If you know your geography you get the joke. But this is $766 per capita, which is, as I said, 30 times the average. He had all kinds of ridiculous expenditures. One of which is called HAARP -- the High Active Auroral Research Project -- it is in the defense expenditure. It is now $70 million since 1995.

Q: Art Bell spends a lot of time talking about that project.

A: Yeah, and this is supposed to heat up the ionosphere to improve military communications. Originally, by the way, Senator Stephens thought it would channel the energy from the northern lights -- the aurora borealis -- to give us enough energy to light up the world. He actually went to the floor of the Senate pretending he was Jules Verne and that this would actually work.

Q: This next one I actually thought was a joke. But you have to tell us what Dick Shelby did.

A: This is a good one because we have some recent information on this. This is "The Steeling Our Money Award" for his $1.5 million appropriation to refurbish the Vulcan Statue in Birmingham, Alabama. This is not a tribute to Mr. Spock -- in which case I would certainly support it -- it is the statue that was provided by the state of Alabama to the St. Louis World's Fair. Anybody remember when that was?

Q: Before my time.

A: It was 1904. At the time, there was a lot of private sector money going in -- in fact most of this project was funded by the private sector and now they are coming hand and mouth to us, the taxpayers. I guess next to the Dr. Seuss memorial in Springfield, I'll take the family to downtown Birmingham to see this Vulcan statue. So I got an e-mail from the Vulcan Foundation Executive Director. He said this was of "vital importance -- it was the gateway to the south -- it transformed the Industrial Revolution." Excuse me? This is now the Information Age. Nobody much cares what happened with the steel industry in Birmingham a hundred years ago -- and if you do, don't use our money. And then he had the audacity to say, why don't you send a check to help us out?

Q: You are kidding?

A: Oh no. I'll give him credit for that. At least the guy had fortitude to come up and claim this is a great project, send money.

Q: Gee! Steel stones! We've already touched on Lott's $400+ million for a ship no one wants or need -- what's the deal with this $25 million for the International Fund for Ireland? This isn't foreign aid?

A: Well, they think it is. We gave it "The Erin Go Broke" award. This is actually a tribute to the former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neil from Massachusetts. In this case, this was started many, many years ago -- every year the Department of State doesn't ask for the money, but since 1986 -- this is amazing -- $371 million has been sent over for this program. You know what they are trying to do?

Q: What? Fund the IRA? Support Jamison Whiskey?

A: No, no -- allegedly in support of the Anglo-Irish accord. Well that certainly wasn't around in 1986. So they justify it every year with a new purpose. Job creation and equal opportunity for the Irish people. I don't know where that is written in our Constitution.

Q: Well, what about the Italian-Americans and the Polish-Americans and the Lithuanian-Americans?

A: Exactly. They're building a replica of the "Jeannie Johnson," which was actually a Canadian ship that ferried famine victims across the Atlantic, and a national waterspout center to be used for coaching top-level athletes. You know they are going to beat us in the Olympics soon and it's going to be our fault.

Q: Why the heck are they spending $648,000 for ornamental fish research, and why are we, the American taxpayer picking up the tab?

A: I don't know.

Q: Whose brain flatulence was that?

A: This is somehow a very important item for a number of the members around the country -- I think one is in Florida and one is on the West Coast -- but this is clearly a very big deal. The ornamental fish industry in Florida is getting $198,000 of that money -- and I think if they are going to sell the fish, they ought to figure out how to do it themselves.

Q: Tom, tell us about "The Hemorrhaging Money Award"?

A: This is pretty amazing ...

Q: ... and expensive!

A: Yeah, very expensive. This shows you how the appropriators just divide up this money. $226 million added in-conference (that means after the House and Senate has already passed their versions of the bill -- this was the Health and Human Services Bill) mostly in the districts of the appropriators.

Q: Gee, that's an interesting coincidence ...

A: Yeah, right. One hundred-nineteen of the 208 facilities are in states that have an appropriator -- just on that subcommittee. Let's do the math: That means 7 percent of the Congress got more than 57 percent. It's just an outrage. These are local hospitals, medical facilities that every community in the country has but rather than let the Department of Health and Human Services divide it up based on need, and based on competition and based on applying for these particular grants, the members decided they would divide up the money. And that's our biggest problem.

Q: And this is legal because of their rules.

A: Yeah. They can just do it. That's really our problem because this is just unfair. More than 70 percent of projects in the Health and Human Services bill were added after the House and Senate passed their appropriations bills. That's basically behind closed doors in the middle of the night, at the last minute -- and that's an abuse the people just don't know about.

Q: Yeah, but certainly the members of Congress know about that. So what about the 93 percent of Congress that is getting short shift? Aren't they p.o.-ed?

A: They go along with it.

Q: Why? Are they just waiting their turn at the trough?

A: Yeah. By the way, some of these were in the state of California. Senator Feinstein happens to sit on the Labor Health Human Services subcommittee and so do two House members -- Cunningham and Pelosi. A little bi-partisan. But here are some of the really, really "vital" projects that were added: $850,000 for the Grammy Foundation in Santa Monica; $250,000 for the American Film Institute (an organization which I think has a fair amount of money) for a media-literacy project with the Los Angeles County School District. I'm sure that's the first thing on their minds. I've seen the classroom problems in the L.A. School district.

Q: Why don't they just ask Spielberg or Geffen for that money?

A: Yeah, exactly. $1.7 million for the Ocean Education Center at Dana Pointe -- and it goes on and on and on. These are projects that they throw in because they are sitting in this small room with their colleagues and they just divide it up.

Q: A lot of these projects where a certain congress-critter, who has control of the purse strings, brings the bacon back home. In Iowa, you had a couple of guys, Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. Tom Latham -- regardless of whether this Iowa Communications Network is worthy or not (I sure don't know) -- how come they get $4 million and some other guy from Rhode Island, South Carolina or Wisconsin doesn't?

A: Because they are on the appropriate subcommittee to put this money in. By the way, the Iowa Communications Network is in direct competition with the cable systems, broadband, DSL -- it was originally intended to wire the schools in Iowa. Now, of course, they are talking about wiring all the students and all the teachers. That seems to me to be job of the private sector. The private sector itself is clearly not doing well with that entire process. What are we doing subsidizing a statewide network in a business that is so cut throat that you practically get free phones these days?

Q: I remember Al Gore once, upon a time, talking about wiring up all the schools -- he didn't single out Iowa or any other state. If there is going to be a concerted effort to nationally hook up all the schools, shouldn't there be some kind of joint venture? They are always talking about these public-private partnerships. I don't happen to like that concept, but doesn't this seem like the kind of deal where something like that might actually work?

A: It could be. But, on the other hand, look at the philanthropy that is coming out of the tech sector -- even with this tech slump -- the Gates Foundation gave away $17 million to the state of Louisiana to wire their libraries. There's millions and millions of dollars flowing all across the country to close the digital divide -- or whatever you want to call it -- this is not something that the federal government can do on its own.

Q: I am a little conflicted about this next one because I'm just not sure how much is appropriate or not. Your "Going for the Gold Award" and Senator Bob Bennett from Utah. How much did he get?

A: So far, $99 million -- and since it is the winter Olympics for next year, we are certainly going to see tens of millions more (if not hundreds of millions more) for this upcoming fiscal year 2002. There are certainly things that the government should do for the Olympics. For example provide security, bring in DOD if necessary, secure communications, etc. But, two things about that. First, the Olympics are a private operation and the city that wins the bid should find the money. It is their responsibility. The Olympic committee should reimburse the government for any money that is spent by the government -- and particularly if they make a profit.

Q: Like I said, I was conflicted when I saw that but what is that $99 million being spent on?

A: Well, here's a good one. $590,000 for the University of Utah to make local warnings and forecasts for the 2002 Olympics. We think it is probably going to snow.

Q: And that forecasting stuff is going to happen anyway with or without the Olympics.

A: Yeah. And, of course, we do have the National Weather Service among other areas -- local channels can give you the weather. It certainly doesn't seem like a big national-security thing. They are putting in a light rail project in Salt Lake City that will probably never be used again. Every city that is bidding for the 2012 Olympics is saying, we are going to go to Washington with our hands out. In fact, they actually calculate how much money we can get from the government. And we don't have to do this. The L.A. Olympics made something like $70+ million. Pay the government back. Not every taxpayer gets to go. It's nice to have them, but it is still a private operation.