GOP's War On Pet Projects Bogs Down In Temptation
By Andrew Taylor, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, Aug. 22, 1998) -- Freshman GOP Rep. Bob Schaffer represents a sprawling congressional district in eastern Colorado, where ranchers and farmers can drive dozens of miles to buy a quart of milk, visit the doctor or shop at a hardware store. Good roads are important.
But when the massive highway bill (PL 105-178) was pieced together earlier this year, Schaffer was not among those lining up to bring federally funded road and bridge projects to his district. The rigidly conservative Schaffer did not come to Congress to bring pet projects back home.
"I asked for zero . . . largely because I thought the practice of pork spending . . . was unethical and is exactly what's sick about Washington," Schaffer said. "So I just resolved early on that I wouldn't take anything."
His reluctance to bring home the bacon has earned him some flak from his Democratic opponent in the November elections, former Fort Collins Mayor Susan Kirkpatrick, but Schaffer shrugs it off. And he notes that his Fort Collins "hometown newspaper, which is pretty liberal and usually opposes me, agreed with me on this one."
To the dismay of self-described "pork-busters" such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Schaffer is the exception, not the rule.
The GOP tidal wave of 1994 brought to the Capitol many idealistic lawmakers determined to change the ways of Washington, including the age-old practice of stuffing spending bills with hometown projects. But after more than three years in the majority, many junior Republican revolutionaries have yielded to the attractions of pet projects. They may have lambasted Democratic-controlled Congresses for loading up bills with "pork barrel" spending, but now that Republicans are running the show, the fight against such projects -- never a pitched battle to begin with -- is barely more than a skirmish.
"After we first took over, there was a reduction, but now I see it growing again," McCain said. He added that Republicans' continuing penchant for pet projects is "one of my greatest disappointments" since 1994.
McCain has scrubbed 10 of the 13 fiscal 1999 spending bills -- the ones that have already made it through the Senate Appropriations Committee. He found $9.1 billion in unrequested line items, known as earmarks, including a $1.5 billion amphibious assault ship to be built, almost literally, in the backyard of Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
For many Republicans, sponsoring pet projects is just one part of a job description that also includes cutting taxes and shrinking government. The irony of conservative Republicans such as David M. McIntosh of Indiana and Zach Wamp of Tennessee carrying forward the GOP revolution of 1995 at the same time they practice the parochial politics of pork is not lost on budget hawks such as Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a private watchdog group.
"As long as they think it helps them get re-elected, you're going to find a lot of this stuff," Schatz said. "With a small majority in the House, you are going to find things to help yourself stay in power."
New York moderate Republican Jack Quinn, for example, whose district voted by a margin of almost 2-to-1 for President Clinton in 1996, works hard to bring federal money to his Buffalo-based district. Quinn's predecessor, Democrat Henry Nowak (1975-93), brought an estimated $1 billion to the district during his career on the Public Works and Transportation Committee. Quinn uses the same post on the panel, now known as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to cement his hold on his Democratic-leaning district.
"I actively sought that committee because Nowak was on there for 20 years," Quinn said. "It doesn't hurt to return federal dollars. It doesn't hurt at all."
Even stalwart conservatives make an exception when it comes to their district's needs. Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., is a religious conservative devoted to shrinking government and cutting taxes. But he also is following Democrat Tom Bevill (1967-97), who used his post as chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee to produce projects such as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a $3 billion barge canal that cuts through Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico.
Narrowly elected in 1996, Aderholt was promptly rewarded with a spot on Appropriations, and he proudly highlights his efforts to help bring highway and other projects to northern Alabama, including $200 million for a Memphis-Birmingham superhighway. The project will help him in his November race against Bevill's son, Don.
Incumbent Protection Program
That Republicans used the recently enacted transportation bill and the ongoing appropriations cycle to satisfy their parochial needs should not be a surprise. Bringing home federal projects and grants is a time-tested way of proving one's worth as a lawmaker. It may not broaden one's mass appeal, but it is a big part of shoring up support among key constituencies.
"It usually isn't anything that people put in television commercials, because it takes on a pejorative connotation, but in local communities, in the local press with the local leaders, it takes on great significance," said New York Rep. Bill Paxon, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
As for past Republican attacks on the pet project practices of entrenched Democrats, Paxon said: "Then, it was just an effective attack on a macro level. . . . But on a micro level it is still a grand slam for many."
Republicans also recognize that many members of their narrow House majority of 228 members (to 206 Democrats) come from districts that were held for years by Democrats, who got themselves re-elected in part by bringing home pet projects. Doing so is part of the job in districts such as Aderholt's or that of Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who succeeded Appropriations Committee titan Jamie L. Whitten, D-Miss. (1941-95). It is no coincidence that Wicker promptly gained a seat on Appropriations.
Democrats are hesitant to make an issue of Republicans' parochial ways. Pet projects have always been attractive to members of both parties. In an increasingly polarized House, awarding such projects to members is one of the few oases of bipartisanship.
"I have to tell you that in my experience, [Republicans] have been very cooperative," said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Eye of the Beholder
An old congressional adage is that pork is what you find in the other guy's district.
But pinning down the difference between unjustifiable pork and a meritorious earmark is not easy. Sometimes a provision must pass the know it when you see it test. An example is report language for the Senate appropriations bill (S2168) for the departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that earmarks $1 million from the Community Development Block Grant programs to establish the Center for Early Southern Life at Alabama Constitution Village in Huntsville. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., is a member of the VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee.
"Pork-busters" such as McCain and Citizens Against Government Waste have developed criteria aimed at determining which congressional earmarks are the most questionable.
McCain -- whose World Wide Web site features an animated pig pushing a barrel filled with greenbacks across the screen -- produces a detailed analysis of each spending bill as it comes to the Senate floor. McCain's staff scours each bill for designations that have not been approved by the relevant authorizing committee, were not requested by the president, were slipped in during a House-Senate conference, or would improperly transfer or sell federal property to help a friend, such as a mayor or governor.
McCain agreed that many of the projects that make his rosters have merit. The "criteria are not intended to reflect a judgment on the merits of an item," McCain said in a statement. "They are designed to identify projects that have not been considered in an appropriate, merit-based prioritization process."
Defenders of congressional earmarks challenge McCain's criteria as too simplistic. They question, for example, why the president's budget should be held sacrosanct when Clinton has included debatable items such as the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program, which subsidizes private industry's efforts to develop cutting-edge technologies. Congressional Republicans also take a generally dim view of the Pentagon's dual-use technology program, which promotes the use of defense technologies by the private sector. "There's pork in the president's budget," concedes a senior administration staff aide.
Moreover, the president's budget often deliberately low-balls money for programs that it knows are congressional favorites. That practice produces money for other programs supported by the administration.
For example, the official fiscal 1999 budget released in February included no money for new federal courthouse construction. But the General Services Administration, which oversees the program, requested $521 million in its annual budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget -- which may more accurately reflect the administration's priorities. The House spending bill (HR4104) for Treasury-Postal Service programs would provide exactly $521 million; the Senate bill would provide $553 million.
An effective tactic to grease the way for a hometown project is to lobby to get it included in the president's budget. Former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore. (1967-97), was a master at this.
Lawmakers also argue that they are more knowledgeable about the needs of their districts than Washington-based agency officials.
It has never been easy to combat federal designations for districts or states, and Congress has never shown much determination to check them. And with the swift advance out of deficit spending into an era of federal budget surpluses, lawmakers' appetites for fighting pork seem to be flagging.
Still, although the budget is projected to produce a $63 billion surplus for fiscal 1998, tight "caps" on discretionary spending are tying appropriators in knots. Critics of earmarking say it takes money away from more valuable programs and, because of the caps, the practice is as damaging as ever.
Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that $12 billion to $15 billion in unnecessary designations will make their way into the annual appropriations bills each year. Total appropriations for fiscal 1999 are expected to reach about $565 billion, depending on the end game between Congress and Clinton. Based on the watchdog group's calculations, parochial spending represents about 2 percent of the discretionary budget.
McCain and other self-described pork-busters, such as Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Rep. David Minge, D-Minn., have few tools in their arsenal, other than the cleansing power of publicity.
Perhaps the most effective way to get rid of unneeded projects is to spotlight them in the media. For example, news segments such as NBC News' "The Fleecing of America" have heaped ridicule on Congress for items such as an $800,000 outhouse for a federal park. As a result, Schatz said, fewer items that appear silly -- such as a museum in North Dakota to honor bandleader Lawrence Welk -- now make it into the bills.
For his part, McCain has toned down his efforts somewhat. He no longer offers amendments -- which have proved futile -- to strip unrequested projects from bills. But he still has his staff bird-dog the Senate floor when appropriations bills are up, scrubbing amendments for suspicious items.
"They look at every amendment," McCain said. "It's a real disincentive" for members trying to add earmarks on the floor.
Oddly, among the biggest fans of his efforts, McCain said, is Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is legendary for his aggressive attempts to steer federal dollars to his state. McCain said Stevens has told him his pork-busting efforts help him curb fellow senators' appetites for earmarks.
Said McCain: "When they come in and ask for pork, [Stevens] says 'You're going to have to get it by McCain.' " McCain's Web site routinely criticizes Stevens' designations for Alaska, but the old-school chairman does not mind such publicity.
In the House, Royce and Minge lead a small band of budget hawks who take to the floor and try to kill objectionable programs. They almost always lose, Royce acknowledged. But he added that they have won some changes in some of the programs they criticize, such as the Market Access Program, which subsidizes overseas advertising for U.S. commodities. Corporations, he said, now have to match some of the subsidy.
And after years of attacks, money for the Forest Service's timber road construction program was dumped from the fiscal 1999 Interior spending bill (HR4193).
Perhaps the most potent tool against congressional designations was the line-item veto, which President Clinton wielded for less than a year before the 1996 law (PL 104-130) was overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. But Clinton was timid in his use of the veto, and it did not deter lawmakers from their usual parochial practices.
©1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.