Government Spending

Ridiculous Spending on Museums May Be Here To Stay

Handouts for tourist-trap museums will be part of the federal funding battleground in the next two years.


With federal spending and the debt limit shaping up to be the pivotal political fights of the next two years, federal handouts for tourist-trap museums could be an unexpectedly telling battleground.

On February 28, the House Appropriations Committee released guidelines for earmarked spending requests in the upcoming FY 2024 spending bills.

Earmarks, which were banned in 2011 but returned in 2022, are often referred to as pork-barrel projects. Members of Congress use earmarks to shower local constituencies with "free" federal dollars for a wide variety of things, most of which are not proper federal responsibilities.

A perennial recipient of wasteful earmark funds, and one which the House Appropriations Committee has now banned from receiving them, is local museums.

In FY 2022, museum earmarks included $3 million for a decrepit prison in Illinois, $3 million for a Gandhi museum in Houston, and $3 million for a history museum in wealthy Palo Alto, California.

The FY 2023 omnibus package featured $750,000 for the Connecticut Trolley Museum, $2 million for Baltimore's National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, and $3.3 million for the Door County Granary in Wisconsin.

As a case study, the Door County Granary is perhaps the best example of how federal funds are used to make local boondoggle projects possible.

Built in 1901, the granary became obsolete and was set to be torn down as a fire hazard in 2017. However, the local historical society pushed to have the granary added to the national register of historical places and began an effort to turn the site into a historical museum and "event space."

The society claimed that the project would be "funded 100% through private donations and grants," specifically without local tax dollars. However, the project had only reached about half of its funding goal as of August 2022, primarily from a single wealthy patron.

There's a good reason why locals might have hesitated to fully fund the project by choice: It's exceedingly unlikely to receive many visitors due to unfortunate geography.

Door County is located on a rural peninsula northeast of Green Bay, and as such it does not have a naturally high traffic volume that would pass by the site. Green Bay's population is barely into six digits, and Milwaukee is over a two-hour drive away, so there will probably not be steady throngs going out of their way to visit a farm museum.

That's when Uncle Sugar came in. The $3.3 million earmark represents most of the project's funding, so the promise that local taxpayers would avoid getting soaked was kept by soaking taxpayers everywhere else.

To rein in some of the most obnoxiously wasteful projects, the House Appropriations Committee singled out museums as being ineligible for earmark requests from its 435 members.

However, the Senate Appropriations Committee is exceedingly unlikely to reciprocate. The committee is now led by Sens. Patty Murray (D–Wash.) and Susan Collins (R–Maine), neither of whom are averse to dubious earmarks.

For the last two appropriations cycles, the House and Senate agreed to sign off on each other's slates of earmarks. If that practice stays in place, lobbyists seeking federal funds for local museums can simply focus their efforts on the upper legislative chamber.

The Door County Granary remains instructive. Since its sole legislative sponsor was Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D–Wis.), a comparable project would still be eligible for funding in the new session of Congress unless House Republicans seek to apply their earmark rules to Senate requests as well.

Such a demand would trigger a fierce struggle between the chambers, in addition to expected fights over top-line spending levels and a variety of politically volatile subjects such as border security.

Federal finances are an unmitigated disaster. Major programs such as Social Security and Medicare are on a fast track to bankruptcy, but neither party is eager to address those problems. In that context, one might hope that legislators would at least be willing to cut back on parochial boondoggles as a tiny first step toward fiscal sanity.

If even that modest request is too much for members who live to spend other people's money, it will bode poorly for Washington's ability to make tough choices in the years to come.