Everyone believes that congressional pork-barrel spending and government waste are the same thing. Thus, every year when it releases its Congressional Pig Book chronicling the latest federal pork, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) receives scores of angry calls, letters, and journalistic inquiries asking why we think cancer research or air-port runway lights are wasteful.
Despite most voters’–and more than a few journ alists’ misconceptions, pork and waste aren ‘t synonymous. Waste, of course, is a relatively subjective term. Most conservatives and libertarians would agree that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which gives money to private companies to invest in emerging economies, is wasteful because it provides unnecessary and unfair subsidies. Good government groups have long pointed to the hundreds of duplicative, outdated, and just plain useless education, health, and housing programs that litter the executive agencies. When Medicare makes $13 billion in improper payments in one year, that’s waste. And of course, when the military spends $600 for a hammer or billions on a helicopter that doesn’t fly, that’s waste.
But it’s not pork. Instead, pork, as the term is used today by budget analysts, designates spending items inserted inappropriately into appropriations bills. It does not refer to a normative judgment about government’s appropriate role; it refers to lapses in the procedures erected by Congress to ensure wise use of taxpayer money. As such, pork’s dramatic increase since Republicans took the majority in Congress undermines good government and should trouble GOP voters.
Before Gingrich and his troops took the majority in Congress in 1995, it was an article of faith among conservatives that Democrats were corrupt, fiscally irresponsible, and out of touch. Few issues symbolized this corruption like the proliferation of pork projects sent home by representatives and senators to “buy” another term. It was an article of faith that such practices would be eliminated immediately once Republicans took over.
Six years later, pork items have exploded. In 1995, when the GOP took over, there were 1,439 such projects. By 1998, that number had increased to over 2,000 items, and ratcheted up to 2,838 projects in 1999 and 4,326 in 2000. Most pathetically, for FY 2001, as their presidential candidate was preaching reform and fiscal restraint, a Republican-led Congress passed 6,333 pork projects, an almost 50 percent increase from the previous year.
According to CAGW’s analysis, to be classified as pork, a spending item must meet at least two of seven possible criteria: The item was not subjected to competitive bidding; it was not subjected to a congressional hearing; it was requested by only one chamber of the Congress; it was not specifically authorized by the appropriate congressional committee; it was not requested by the president; it greatly exceeds the president’s budget request or the previous year’s funding; or it serves only a local or special interest.
The press habitually misunderstands these criteria. Articles referring to pork as waste usually prompt pork-barrel champions like Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska to proclaim, as he did recently on the Senate floor, that he was proud to have brought home his “fair share” of federal bacon. Never mind that his state’s share amounted to 30 times the national average in dollars per capita — $766 for every Alaskan. Never mind that most of the projects were completely without national significance and strictly special interest paybacks — $176,000 for the Reindeer Herders Association or $400,000 for a parking lot in Talkeetna, Alaska, population 300.
What is shameful about such projects, and indeed all pork, is that they circumvent open and accountable government and turn Capitol Hill appropriators into Gilded Age party bosses. Last-minute, behind-closed- door changes to appropriations, sometimes adding tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, have become common. Before one vote last year, the majority and minority sides were each given one copy of the final bill, 10 minutes before debate began. Majority Leader Trent Lott let the mask slip a little when last fall’s omnibus appropriation bill came to the Senate floor. Lott, addressing Senator Stevens said, “I look forward some day to knowing all that’s in the bill.”
It is no accident the top four states in per capita pork are represented by Senate appropriators — Alaska, with Stevens; Hawaii, with Democrat Dan Inouye; Mississippi, with Lott; and, of course, West Virginia, with Democrat Robert Byrd, the Senate’s alpha-porker, who this year quipped, “You may as well slap my wife as take away my transportation funding.”
Since the GOP took over, spending on pork has skyrocketed. In FY 1995, in the budget passed by the last Democrat Congress, pork amounted to $10.8 billion. In the intervening years, pork has risen to this year’s level of $18.5 billion.
While this year’s biggest increase of 571 percent in pork was in the Treasury/ Postal Service Appropriations package, the biggest abuse of our tax dollars was in the Veterans Affairs/Housing and Urban Development, or VA/HUD, Appropriations bill. More than two-thirds of the 704 pork-barrel projects under the Economic Development Initiatives Program were added at the last minute in conference. Instead of being used to help eliminate urban blight, a portion of this money was sent to some of the richest towns in America. In fact, $26 million was slated for museums, theaters, opera houses, and performing arts centers.
A number of other items showed up in this bill. For example:
For the third time in four years, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott forced the Pentagon to build a $460 million ship it didn’t want at the Ingalls Shipyard, which he can literally see from his front porch.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Tom Latham got $4 million for continuation and expansion of the Iowa Communication Network fiber optic demonstration project.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama this year procured $1.5 million to refurbish Alabama’s Vulcan Monument, a tribute to the god of fire and iron constructed for the St. Louis World’s Fair held 97 years ago.
$393,000 was added by the House for sustainable agriculture research in California. As of March 8, 2000, USDA had requested but not received a grant proposal from any university; no national or local need had been established; no stated goals had been written; and no particular university had been identified to carry out the research. This is the second year of funding for this ephemeral research.
$8.5 million went to the Gallo Center for Alcoholism Research.
$4 million was added by the House for dental research.
$1.5 million was added by the House for chronic fatigue research.
$1 million was added in conference for the Community Hospital Telehealth Consortium.
Some Republicans will argue such figures are irrelevant in the context of the gargantuan federal budget — in 2001, the $18 billion pork tab accounted for about 1 percent of the $1.8 trillion budget. If pork helps our members get elected so they can reform Social Security and cut taxes, where’s the harm?
Such an approach ignores human nature. If you can’t do the little things right, by standing for principle against short-term gains, if you are willing to circumvent the budget process to spend public money and accept the culture of horse-trading and back room deals, how are you going to lead the battle for elimination of a cabinet agency or two? How will you continue to crusade against IRS abuse and inefficiency? Or against any of the other myriad abuses of this government?
Bottom line, to borrow a phrase, pork is a gateway drug for politicians slowly selling out to the inside-the-beltway mentality. For conservatives, libertarians, or even moderates who like good government and sound management, a party of pork does not represent their values.
President Bush seems to recognize the impact of pork spending on the integrity of the budget process. In his economic plan during the presidential campaign and in his budget blueprint, he called for the establishment of a commission to eliminate pork barrel spending. President Bush also identified 6,183 pork programs (a similar number to CAGW’s tally, meaning his staff probably used the same criteria) in the fiscal year 2001 budget and proposed a reduction of $4.3 billion in such spending for his fiscal 2002 budget. Vice President Cheney has even suggested that the president would veto bills that exceeded his proposed spending increase, unlike the prior administration, which vetoed bills that didn’t spend enough.
The Bush administration is off to a good start on getting its arm s around the gigantic management problems endemic throughout the federal government. Its new budget outline, “A Blueprint for a New Beginning,” suggests many long-overdue, common sense budget and management reforms, such as establishing a national emergency reserve fund to budget for true emergencies; curtailing congressional earmarking, especially for special interest spending; enforcing and extending limits on spending and the “pay-as-you-go” requirement; converting the annual budget and appropriations process to a biennial cycle; and restoring the president’s line-item veto authority.
In calling for “active, but limited” government, the president says he seeks to establish a government that is citizen-centered, not bureaucracy-centered; results-oriented, not process-oriented; and market-based– actively promoting, not stifling, innovation and competition.
His proposals have caused great consternation in all the right places, notably from Senator Robert Byrd, dean of the Congressional Pork Barrel Caucus, who has promised a fierce fight on spending reductions and reform.
To succeed in its efforts, the Bush administration will also have to quell dissent within its own party. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, recently complained that the Bush budget grows the federal government at “only” 4 per-cent annually. Treasury Secretary O’Neill responded to that just right when he pointed out that every year in the private sector companies assume prices will stay the same or even fall, and therefore more must be done with less. Only in government is annual spending growth assumed.
The current environment in the federal capital is the most potentially reform-minded and conservative in generations. The opportunity for genuine elimination of pork, along with corporate welfare, as well as top-to-bottom federal reform of government’s massive waste, fraud, and abuse is here. The question is: Will Republicans make the most of it?
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire