November 21, 2007

November 21, 2007 | Commentary on Agriculture

Turning Their Backs on Pork Reform

Last fall, angry voters demanded that Congress end pork-barrel politics as usual. Here are the results:

Item 1: Last month, the Senate had to choose how to spend $400 million: health insurance for 173,000 children, or 1,056 pork projects.
Pork won, 68-26.

Item 2: Following the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, senators had to choose between spending $1 billion repairing structurally deficient bridges, or on pork projects.

They voted 82-14 in favor of pork.

Item 3: Congress recently overrode a President Bush veto for the first time. And what finally brought Republicans and Democrats together to override the President? Iraq, health care, immigration?

No. It was a massive $23 billion water bill overflowing with pork projects.

Meet the new Democratic Congress. Same as the old Republican Congress. They won the majority with a mandate to finally end the pork projects that have wasted billions of tax dollars, and launched dozens of FBI corruption investigations.

But time after time, the Democrats' reform rhetoric was not followed by action.

They promised to prohibit senators from trading pork for votes -- and then stripped that provision.

They pledged to ban earmarks that financially benefit lawmakers or their immediate families -- and then added a last-minute loophole effectively killing the ban.

They promised to disclose all pork projects publicly. Then House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.) tried to conceal all pork projects from the public (and even other lawmakers) until after the spending bills had passed.

Most importantly, congressional Democrats pledged to cut the number of pork projects in half from the 2005 peak of 13,492 down to 6,746. Yet at last count, the appropriations bills contain 11,351 pork projects.

Democratic leaders aren't quite apologizing for breaking their reform pledges, either. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a top earmarker, was recently approached by reporters noting that he had scrambled the earmark data in the Defense appropriations bill, violating the spirit of openness and transparency that the Democrats had pledged.

"Tough [expletive]," Rep. Murtha responded.

That same Rep. Murtha made headlines earlier this year when he allegedly threatened to permanently ban a colleague's pork projects unless he agreed to support Murtha's own controversial pork, a clear violation of House ethics rules.

Silly pork projects such as the Bridge to Nowhere, and the Woodstock museum are well known. More quietly, many lawmakers are also spending taxpayer dollars on monuments to themselves. Current earmark recipients include the "Charles Rangel Center for Public Service," inserted by (who else?) Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.); the "Thad Cochran Research Center," inserted by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the "Harkin Grant Program," inserted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and the "Robert Byrd Locks and Dam," named for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.).

Not to be outdone, Congressman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) secured $130,000 for a library and museum reportedly founded by his wife, Mary Regula, and currently operated by his daughter, Martha Regula.

Contrary to the claims of pork defenders, it wasn't always this way. In 1996, there were 958 earmarks; by 2005 they totaled 13,491. The 1982 highway authorization bill contained 10 earmarks, the 2005 version contained 6,371. Pork projects are proliferating at a level never before seen in American history.

Before pork, government grants were distributed by federal agencies through a merit-based application process, with strong oversight. Now, with earmarks, lawmakers personally distribute these grants based on politics. So instead of filing an application, many federal grant seekers today have to make a political donation. Not all of them complain, however; a recent investigation found that successful companies generate $28 in earmarks for every $1 spent lobbying Congress. In other words, lawmakers are selling them your tax dollars at the bargain price of 4 cents on the dollar.

Pork has serious implications. In the defense bill just signed into law, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) secured an earmark diverting $3 million of the defense budget into encouraging youth golf. That money could have purchased full body armor, helmets and night-vision goggles for 172 American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But whether it's up against defense, health care or crumbling bridges, pork remains Congress' higher priority.

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

About the Author

Brian M. Riedl Grover Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

First appeared in the McClatchy wire