Lawmakers rush to send the pork back home

May 20, 1999|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- Five million dollars for a law-enforcement academy in New Mexico. More than a million for a manure-handling project in Mississippi. Another million for peanut research in Georgia. Three-quarters of a million for grasshopper research in Alaska. "Pork" is no longer a four-letter word in Washington.

Indeed, the other white meat is on the menu again just about everywhere in the capital. In the past year, the budget surplus has made the political world safe for pork again, and much of the budget anguish that was a staple of the big-deficit years has evaporated. The trough is full, and every hour is feeding time.

The Republicans declared the end to business-as-usual when they took control of Congress in 1995, and for a while the discipline held. No longer. Here's the score card for the past year:

First, a transportation bill slipped off Capitol Hill like a greased pig, $21 billion over the agreed-upon spending caps. Then Congress polished off a 4,000-page, 40-pound spending bill for this fiscal year stuffed with goodies like the manure-handling project. (One big winner: a lettuce geneticist in Salinas, Calif., who ended up with $250,000 -- lettuce of a different sort.)

And just last week the emergency spending bill for the Yugoslavia war and tornado victims in Oklahoma and Kansas was held up as red-faced legislators sorted through the fine print of the measure and discovered such goodies as $4 million for a forestry research center at Auburn University in Alabama, a million-dollar construction project to build a Pike's Peak Summit House in Colorado, another million to help suppress the western spruce budworm on the Yakima Indian reservation, and a provision to assist sturgeon fishermen in Alabama -- proof that, in Washington at least, pork can sometimes be seafood.

Indeed, last week House Speaker Dennis Hastert was so disgusted with the Balkans funding bill and the role of Republicans in the pork festival (three GOP House conferees and the Republican who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee all defended the pig-out) that he thought out loud about quitting. That got lawmakers' attention.

Lawmakers have always had a taste for pork, but when the deficit was streaming toward $300 billion, big-spending special provisions were regarded with at least feigned displeasure, not unlike pork chops in the Borscht Belt.

Surplus talk

"But all the talk about the surplus inherently lowers people's stomach for fiscal discipline," says Robert Bixby, policy director of the Concord Coalition, the bipartisan budget watchdogs. "Listen, all these people are talking about using the surplus to save Social Security or paying down the national debt, and yet there's no lack of willingness to use the surplus for special pork servings."

Nobody expects a pork-free capital, and a lot of the piggery is done the old-fashioned way, out of sight of press and public, which you might think of as a Washington version of the "Phantom Menace." Even so, the new breed of porkmongering takes the art to new levels. In the past year, appropriations bills once again are being loaded with special provisions for obscure outposts of government like the Office of Cosmetics and Color or the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Commission, often -- and this is what is raising the hackles of some congressional elders -- without the knowledge or approval of committee chairmen. In many cases, the actual contents of a spending bill aren't known until days later.

Much of the pork packed into appropriations bills can be summarized by two words: West Virginia.

West Virginia connection

This spring's emergency spending bill originally included funding to study designing a CD-ROM to supplement a book on the Constitution. Target: the Center for Educational Technologies in Wheeling, W.Va. It also set aside $20 million for site preparation for three Immigration and Naturalization Service facilities. One site: McDowell, W.Va. The biggest pork item was a billion-dollar guaranteed loan program for embattled steel companies, which nearly prompted Mr. Hastert to resign.

A major beneficiary: Weirton Steel Co., Weirton, W.Va. All that is the legerdemain of the crafty Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who no longer strums country reels but who still plays the pork game like a fiddle.

Tucked away

The big subsidy for big steel was so outrageous that even Mr. Byrd couldn't hide it in the usual way, tucking it away in a mess of mysterious dependent clauses. So Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican with a special gift for reading the gray type of legislation, decided to counter with his own slab of bacon, a $125 million amendment to buy back a half-billion dollars in loans for oil and gas companies. It became too much for even congressional conferees to swallow, and so the double-cut pork chops were removed -- but not without promises that the provisions could return another day, with enhanced "emergency" status.

Sounds like a campaign issue for 2000. But maybe not in West Virginia.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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