The Price Of Pork
Despite GOP Congress, pork-barrel spending continues apace
By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, June 9) -- If you want more proof that the GOP revolution has not exactly transformed Washington politics, look at the time-honored practice of so-called pork-barrel spending. Congressional lawmakers are pushing pet spending projects as hard as ever, and, while most used to go to the Democrats, it's now the GOP's turn to dish out the financial favors.
Just what is pork-barrel politics? It is a longstanding Washington practice where lawmakers slip favored projects into various spending bills, sometimes in the dead of night, often bypassing normal budget authorizing procedures. A bridge here for $3 million; a dam there for $6 million; $10 million for technology research at a local university. Before long, it adds up to real money.
In era of substantial deficit spending, some recent projects may strike some as questionable -- $500,000 to study grape farming; $473,000 to study human nutrition, including low-fat snack foods; $785,000 for bluefish/striped bass research.
Critics claim lawmakers push these projects simply to shore up political support among their constituencies, without regard to the national interest, all in an effort to bring home the bacon to their state or district.
It's the kind of Capitol Hill practice that used to raise the hackles of congressional Republicans. Back in 1993, then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich railed against the Democratic majority for "growing government to give politicians more pork-barrel handouts and bigger bureaucracies."
Soon after ascending to power in 1995, Gingrich and his fellow Republicans passed line-item veto legislation which would allow the president to cancel specific spending items in spending bills once they land on his desk. That law currently faces a constitutional challenge that could soon be decided by the U.S Supreme Court.
One might wonder if Republicans still support it: two years after the GOP takeover of Congress, pork-barrel spending shows no signs of abating. Researchers at the budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), using their own criteria for pork, found about $14.5 billion in pork spending for the second session of the 104th Congress, a 16-percent increase over the first session and the highest level of pork spending identified since 1990, the first year the watchdog group began scouring Congress' 13 annual appropriations bills.
"Pork spending has simply shifted from one set of barons to another," notes CAGW president Tom Schatz. "It all proves party politics is not all that important when it comes to appropriations."
Who's taking home the most pork?
Thumb through CAGW's 1997 "Pig Book," the watchdog group's annual report on pork-barrel spending, and you'll find multi-million dollar projects going to the home states of powerful GOP appropriators, including:
CAGW gave retiring GOP Sen. Hatfield its mock "Lifetime Achievement Award" for carting $103,781,000 worth of projects to Oregon in 1991, and a whopping $509,111,000 since 1991.
The Democratic barons of pork-barrel spending are still doing quite well, too, according to CAGW figures:
CAGW this year graced Inouye with its "Hall of Shame Award" for the $765,073,000 in projects he's steered to Hawaii since 1991.
The power of the pork game and how it's played
It's no small irony that pork-barrel politics persists in the Republican-controlled Congress. GOP lawmakers, after all, have long criticized Democrats for profligacy and for wanting to consolidate too much control Washington.
So why haven't Republicans stamped out this Washington money grab?
"Power is a seductive thing," says former Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Penny, now a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute. "It's hard to remain a purist," he says. Fear is another factor, Penny adds, noting that many members of Congress strongly believe they will jeopardize their re-election chances if they don't bring home the bacon, a concern Penny calls "overrated."
Power and fear may have been guiding Gingrich who, nervous that his party could lose the majority in the 1996 elections, sent a memo to Republican appropriations committee chairmen last year urging them to fund multi-million dollar spending projects in the districts of embattled Republicans.
One of those Republicans was California Rep. Frank Riggs, who was subsequently allotted $3,400,000 for projects in his district, including the dredging of a harbor near Eureka, Calif. Riggs came to Congress touting a platform of fiscal austerity. Early into his term he declared: "Only 50 days into this historical 104th Congress, Republicans have said no to business as usual in Washington."
Yet Riggs' scare at the polls in 1996 may have him clamoring for more federal projects to bring home. He is one of four sophomores added to the recently-expanded House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, one of the most notorious pork-producing committees in Congress. Riggs declined to be interviewed for this article.
Led by Rep. Bud Shuster (who has a highway named after him in his home state of Pennsylvania), the Transportation panel will likely produce the most pork-laden piece of legislation this year in the reauthorization of the massive 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Since its first iteration in 1982, the legislation has been a favorite vehicle for lawmakers' pet projects, which have gone by the label "demonstration projects."
Cato Institute budget analyst Steve Moore says the Transportation bill "will be the key test" of pork spending this year. Noting that demonstration projects have increased in number with each reauthorization of ISTEA -- ten in 1982, 50 in 1987, and 100 in 1992 -- Moore expects "a record number of demonstration projects this year."
Indeed, according to National Journal, with the exception of a few hard-line deficit hawks, like Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas), and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the majority of House Republicans have submitted requests for demonstration projects to Shuster.
Does pork spending really matter?
Many lawmakers make no apology for pushing pet projects. For some, it's the grease that makes the legislative engine run smoothly; for others, it's one of the main reasons they are in Washington.
One senator singled out in the Citizens Against Government Waste "pig book" is Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican. Burns was judged responsible for $27,388,000 in pork-barrel spending in his home state, including nearly $22 million for housing at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Embarrassed to be in the "Pig Book"? "Not at all," Burns press secretary Matt Raymond told AllPolitics. "Montana has not had a member on the appropriations committee since Senator Mike Mansfield ... Conrad feels that there are a certain amount of discretionary funds in the budget and Montana has been neglected over those years."
"One person's pork is another person's legitimate expenditure," Raymond explains.
Some lawmakers say they oppose pork-barrel spending, but as long as Congress funds discretionary projects, they will go to bat for their constituents. No less a fiscal conservative than Sen. Phil Gramm says he'd oppose building a cheese factory on the moon, "but if we decided to do it, I would want a Texas firm to do the engineering [and] I would want to use milk from Texas cows."
Some contend that pork spending amounts to only a minuscule portion of the nation's $1-trillion budget. Critics say that's beside the point.
"In this era of deficit politics, we cost ourselves in integrity when we succumb to pork-barrel politics," Penny said. "If you preach about balanced budgets in one breath and then brag about a pork-barrel project in the next, I think you bring discredit on the process."
"Pork spending leads to other political pathologies," says Schatz, such as lawmakers placing parochial interests over national ones. Penny recalls that many of his colleagues would vote for large spending bills simply because they had a pet project attached.
There's also a question of fairness, critics contend. They point out that pork spending is heavily concentrated in the districts and states of congressional appropriators, skewing federal resources and giving a select group undue influence.
Cato's Moore says a constitutional argument can be made against pork, that "spending can only take place if it's in the general welfare." Pork spending, he says, "violates the letter and the spirit of the Constitution."
An old Washington joke is that veteran appropriator Robert Byrd would move the entire federal government to West Virginia if given the chance. Unless the line-item veto law kicks in, don't bet against Byrd, particularly if there is enough pork in the bill to bring other legislators along.
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