Dr. Coburn's Operation

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

Dr. Coburn's Operation

Apr 29th, 2006 3 min read

Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reveals that voters now consider banning pork projects - rather than immigration reform, tax-cut extensions, and lobbying reform - their number-one priority for Congress this year. In that case, Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Ok.) is more accurately defending the people's will than many of his more senior colleagues.

In a body that operates under unanimous consent, where lawmakers rarely challenge each other's parochial spending priorities and extreme deference is given to long-serving leaders, Coburn shattered decorum by challenging seven-term Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Al.) "Bridge to Nowhere" in last year's highway bill. His challenge was joined by only 14 Senate colleagues with the courage to vote to strip this wasteful project.

Six months later, Coburn has once again declared war on his colleagues' pork. This time, his amendment to strip Mississippi's "Railroad to Nowhere" (a measure championed by the state's powerful Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran) received a full 47 votes. And that was only the first of his 19 planned amendments to the Senate's larded up supplemental spending bill.

There is no shortage of targets in this bill. After President Bush proposed $92 billion to fund the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Gulf Coast rebuilding, the House quickly passed this legislation with few changes. The Senate Appropriations Committee had no such restraint. The $14 billion they stacked on top of the bill included: a $4 billion farm-subsidy package that, despite near-record farm income, would further subsidize nearly everyone who currently receives farm subsidies regardless of need; $594 million for new highway spending (some as far away as Hawaii, a safe 4,085 miles away from Katrina's deadly path); $20 million more AmeriCorps; and a $1.1 billion giveaway to the fisheries industry.

Much of the backlash against this bill has rightly centered around the aforementioned "Railroad to Nowhere." Senators Lott and Cochran would spend $700 million of Gulf Coast relief funds to reroute a rail line a few miles northward. Why? The Senate report claims it's to fix damage from Hurricane Katrina. But the line has already been repaired, at a cost of $300 million, and the trains are running just fine.

The real reason to shift the tracks is purportedly to make way for construction of a "centralized gaming district" of private, Vegas-style casinos. Even though a state commission recently declared that this long-standing proposal "is no longer seen as practical," because of its steep cost, the appearance of federal dollars appears to have changed the calculus.

Of course, this project's justifications shift on a seemingly hourly basis. Sometimes proponents assert the rail should be moved because of the high number of motorists and pedestrians struck by its trains (The Washington Post reports that Mississippi's rail accident rate from 2001 through 2005 reached a 30-year low). At other times proponents fret that the new tracks remain a flooding risk (yet the rail bed, which rises several feet off the ground, may reduce flooding risk inland). Project proponents do not explain why casino developments are any more suitable for such a flood-prone region.

President Bush is not fooled. The White House has issued its most specific and credible veto threat yet, stating in no uncertain terms that "if the President is ultimately presented a bill that provides more than $92.2 billion, exclusive of funding for the President's plan to address pandemic influenza, he will veto the bill." The next day, 35 senators signed a letter pledging to uphold such a veto.

With this seemingly ironclad veto promise, the additional $14 billion (with the exception of avian-flu funding) may finally be derailed. Why then, would the Senate reject Sen. Coburn's attempts to remove this wasteful spending? This could lead to an ugly conference committee battle between Senate appropriators attached to their pork, and House lawmakers not eager to carry the Senate's water in a spending showdown with the White House.

Since 2001, the federal government has expanded by 45 percent, as Congress enacted the most expensive agriculture, education, Medicare, and highway bills in American history. Additionally, the number of pork projects more than doubled as the "Bridge to Nowhere" came to symbolize Congress's isplaced priorities. By leading the fight against this pork, and the excessive spending of the Senate supplemental bill, Coburn is doing all taxpayers - present and future - a favor.

Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the National Review Online