May 2, 2002 | Commentary on Federal Budget
But this year, you'd think, is different. With the war on
terrorism underway and the economy recovering from a recession,
surely we can't spare even a dime for anything that isn't
So what do we find in this year's spending bills? Pork -- and a
record amount of it.
In fact, the bills are larded with nearly 8,000 pork-barrel
"earmarks" worth about $15 billion. This year's round-up includes
proposals to extend federal responsibility to such projects
One can only begin to imagine what possessed a majority in
Congress to propose spending more than a quarter of a million
taxpayer dollars to help a prosperous Kansas City suburb deal with
black-clad, alienated teens posing as spawns of Nosferatu. This is
an essential responsibility of the national government?
Small wonder that Mitchell Daniels, the president's budget
director, said the pork problem "has gotten out of hand" and that
"Congress ought to moderate its appetite for these programs." But
his criticism only irritated many lawmakers who felt he was
interfering with important congressional prerogatives.
"The power of the purse resides solely with Congress," House
Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. Young, R-Fla., wrote in a
letter to Daniels. "Unless the Constitution is amended, Congress
will continue to exercise its discretion over federal funds for
purposes we deem appropriate."
Chairman Young has it exactly right. Just as the First Amendment
protects the rights even of a fool to speak his mind no matter how
peculiar his thoughts may be, Title I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the
Constitution states that "no money shall be drawn from the
Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law," which
gives Congress the right to spend the federal government's money --
even for ludicrous projects. The Constitution adds no caveat that
the money should be spent wisely.
In short, Congress has every right to fund therapeutic horseback
riding in Apple Valley, Calif. ($150,000) and a dolphin replacement
project in Washington state ($4 million).
But more is at stake in this issue than constitutional
authority, according to Chairman Young: "All wisdom on the
allocation of federal funding does not reside in the executive
branch. Members know the needs of their districts better than civil
servants working in Washington, D.C." Chairman Young's remarks
conjure up images of dedicated elected officials responding to the
broad concerns of constituents.
Which implies that there was a groundswell of public sentiment
in Missouri for a million-dollar program to see if public transit
buses and trains can run on soybeans. And that Texans asked for
$300,000 to pull weeds from the Navidad and Lavaca rivers. And that
Hawaiians, native Alaskans, and the residents of Massachusetts
petitioned loudly for $5 million to facilitate cultural exchanges
that would allow them to reflect on the common roots of their 19th
century whaling heritage.
Pork actually has a different genesis, of course. Many lobbying
firms openly boast of their ability to "sell" local officials on
them. In fact, quite a few publicly advertise their success at
securing federal funds.
One firm, Washington, D.C.-based Sagamore Associates, notes on
its Web site that shepherding federal-funding requests is a "high
priority" for many clients. "More than half our firm's work is
comprised of this activity, and our track record is strong," it
says. The Web site of The Carmen Group, Inc. (also of Washington)
contains a section called "Success Stories" in which it details how
it obtained $860,000 in federal tax money for an historically black
college, $269 million in future funding for a light rail system and
Lawmakers can make all the constitutional appeals they want. But
it's clear that pork is rooted in electoral insecurity and the
desire to buy public affection. The question is, do they have to do
it with the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers?
Utt is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation
(www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire