Lawmakers cling to pet projects

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat, went home last month with $50,000 in federal money for tattoo removal, to help reformed gang members in her Santa Barbara district overcome the "stigma" attached to body art they now want to get rid of.

That was but a bacon bit in the record-setting jackpot of pork-barrel goodies that Congress approved last year, despite an aggressive Bush administration campaign to curb the practice.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, scored $2 million, the second installment in a $3.5 million federal effort to refurbish a 180-foot statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, who reigns from atop a hill in Birmingham.

But the largest haul from the mostly unregulated pot of money that Congress uses for pet projects was claimed by Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat.

Working with a bipartisan band of lawmakers from the Northwest, Murray persuaded a majority of senators to spend nearly $25 billion over 10 years to lease 100 military planes from Boeing, Seattle's struggling aircraft maker. The Pentagon had not asked for the planes. And the House favored a cheaper plan to buy, rather than lease, the aircraft.

"You read these things, and first you laugh, and then you cry," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told the Senate last month after his annual appeal for fiscal restraint.

Later, in an interview, McCain said: "This is the most wasteful, extravagant spending I've seen. Every year it gets worse."

Politicians vs. bureaucrats

Many lawmakers point out that such "earmarked" projects do not add to the budget total and that they, not federal bureaucrats, are best able to determine the needs of their states and districts. They also say that bringing home the bacon is a time-honored product of Washington's political culture.

"Earmarking is here to stay," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat whose share of the take included $2.5 million for drug treatment services in the city and $1 million to the Baltimore Jewish Council to fund a demonstration project on how to provide support services for elderly residents living on their own in residential communities.

"The question is whether these decisions should be made by politicians or bureaucrats," he added. "I'd rather have someone accountable making the decisions."

Even so, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the White House budget director, vowed this week to rejoin the battle. "I think we are duty-bound to try again," he said.

With Congress making so many specific instructions about how money is to be spent, "it pretty much limits the ability to have effective government," Daniels said. "We've got programs in government that are 100 percent earmarked.

For example, he said, there are law enforcement programs in the Justice Department that are supposed to distribute grants to communities most in need, but the money comes from Congress with the grants already parceled out exactly as the lawmakers saw fit.

"Why do you even have people to run them?" Daniels asked, referring to programs where all the decisions have already been made. "We ought to be able to write a software program to do it, if they are to be given no discretion at all."

Daniels' staff has found 7,803 items squirreled away by lawmakers in last year's 13 annual spending bills, compared with 6,454 earmarks in the spending bills enacted in 2000.

Under McCain's definition of pork, most of these were not authorized by Congress in policy legislation, were not requested by the president, and were targeted to specific localities or research facilities to circumvent a competitive award process. Often, such items are added late in the process by a few congressional negotiators without being approved first by either the House or Senate.

Last year's 20 percent increase in earmarks - which produced a total of about $20 billion in pork spending for 2002 - defied determined efforts by Daniels. President Bush had proposed a 50 percent cut in the earmarked spending that had been approved by Congress in 2000 and warned that he would not approve spending measures that were loaded with "fat."

"On the list of things we did well last year, this will not appear," Daniels said yesterday of his pork-fighting campaign.

He observed, though, that Bush used a veto threat to prevent Congress from adding to the overall spending total that he and lawmakers had agreed to before money was allocated within the individual spending bills.

That effort succeeded largely because Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations committees reluctantly agreed to stand behind Bush - in the midst of the war in Afghanistan - even though they thought more money was needed for homeland security and were under pressure from lawmakers eager for an excuse to spend more at home.

Daniels said he would take a more surgical approach this year, trying to trim specific categories of pork barrel spending, such as research grants that are sent to universities all over the nation for studies that Congress directs.

"Research dictated by Congress is not a way to achieve excellence in science," Daniels said.

But Republican appropriators are no more inclined than Democrats to yield any of their power to direct federal money to specific projects that they believe are important to their constituents.

Lawmakers seek seats on the Appropriations Committee specifically to be able to have greater influence over spending. They maintain their power by sharing it with other lawmakers, so nearly everyone gets something to boast about at home. Politically vulnerable lawmakers sometimes receive extra goodies from their party leaders to solidify their position at the polls.

Their directives run through the entire government: highway upgrades, soil studies, a Sports Racing Museum in South Carolina, imported fire ants for New Mexico, winter recreation alternatives for the residents of Fairbanks, Alaska, and laptop computers for Baltimore city police, courtesy of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Power trumps priorities

"We consider [earmarking] our constitutional prerogative, and we will defend it fiercely," said John Scofield, a spokesman for Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Critics of the earmarking process acknowledge that many of the individual projects have merit. But they complain that little consideration is given to national priorities. Rather, they say, the decisive factor in determining whether a project receives money is the influence of its legislative patron.

"Spending money is a matter of public trust," said Sean Rushton of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that issues an annual "pig book" of pork-barrel projects. "When these decisions are made behind closed doors, it undermines voters' confidence in government and raises doubts about whether taxpayers in states that don't have a lot of influence in the process are being treated fairly."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland and senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, agreed that the process favors those willing and able to exploit it. But he contended that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

"For example, I got some money to test the salinity of the Chesapeake Bay," Hoyer said. "Nobody argues with that, because we don't spend enough money on the bay. There could be 10 other projects just as good, but mine gets the money because I'm on the committee. Maybe that's not fair, but that doesn't make it wrong."

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