`Pork' grows as spending slows

Analysts say GOP spent for pet projects with eye toward 2000

Battle to control Congress

November 25, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At a time when the growth in overall federal spending is slowing, Republican congressional leaders are presiding over a striking increase in the amount earmarked for pet projects of individual lawmakers largely on the basis of their position and clout.

This special-interest spending has swollen by about 25 percent in one year -- totaling at least $16 billion for fiscal 2000 compared with about $12 billion in fiscal 1999, according to one estimate. By contrast, overall spending has been growing about 3.3 percent annually during the 1990s, down from around 8 percent a year in the 1980s and 11 percent in the 1970s.

The earmarked money goes for almost every conceivable purpose: school computers, police goggles, Olympic Games Youth Camps, research into Hawaiian volcanoes, spruce spud worm work in Washington and rehabilitation of a ski center in Arkansas.

Written requests for nearly 15,000 items were submitted to the House Appropriations Committee this year, overwhelming the aides charged with reviewing them. Senators asked for many thousands more. And that didn't count the last-minute appeals that prompted budget negotiators to shut down the bazaar before the deal with the White House was officially struck.

Most of the requests were turned down, aides say, but few lawmakers went home empty-handed.

Budget analysts see a direct correlation between the increase in so-called "pork barrel" projects that members can boast of to constituents and Republican fears of losing control of Congress in elections next year.

"It seems to be increasing in proportion to the decline in the Republican margin in the House," said Aaron Taylor, an analyst with Citizens Against Government Waste, a budget watchdog group. "Republicans are trying to hold on to their majority by offering members pork barrel projects."

The quest for goodies to bring home to the voters -- or to lobbyists who make campaign donations -- is bipartisan activity as old as the legislative process. Democrats honed the practice to a high art during their 40-year reign on Capitol Hill. And Democrats took home a substantial share of this year's booty as well.

"I love pork," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat and senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. His pursuit of federal dollars helped endear him to the GOP-leaning constituents he acquired when district lines were last redrawn. "I just can't stand the hypocrisy of the Republicans who always used to blast us for taking it."

A political tool

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay spent much of the congressional session trying to restrain spending enough to avoid dipping into the Social Security surplus. Nonetheless, the Texas Republican backs the use of earmarked spending as a political tool -- and effectively allowed all $14 billion of the non-Social Security surplus to be spent that way.

"It's a lot of fun to talk about pork barrel spending, but these projects are important to people back home," DeLay told reporters near the end of the session. "This is also a way for a Republican Congress to assert its priorities over a Democratic president. Why should we let him decide how all the money is spent?"

Behind the scenes, DeLay was trying to make sure that GOP House members facing tough re-election contests next year got an extra share of the bacon.

"If it was up to Republicans alone, everyone would vote to shrink the budget," said a senior Republican leadership aide. "But we weren't able to do that. So, our priority has to be keeping the majority. Think how much more spending there would be if the Democrats got back in charge."

But spending to save their majority might rob Republicans of their claim to be the party of smaller government and fiscal restraint.

"This is the classic Democratic model of `spend and elect,' " said Stephen Moore of the libertarian Cato Institute. "I think it could hurt them if a lot of Republican voters are disgusted and simply don't show up at the polls."

Earmarked spending

The earmarked spending so markedly on the rise comes during the appropriations process, when Congress distributes money to run government agencies. Instead of simply granting each agency a pot of funds, lawmakers are becoming increasingly specific about where and how they want those funds to be spent.

For example, Rep. Bob Riley, an Alabama Republican, gained $1 million for school computers, which he directed be distributed in $50,000 allotments to 14 counties and six small towns in his rural district.

"He feels like he's in a better position to understand the needs of his district than the Department of Education does," said Riley's spokesman, Pepper Bryars.

The danger of such direction becoming more and more detailed, Moore said, "is that you wind up with Congress as City Hall."

The process for winning earmarks begins formally in the House with the requirement that each lawmaker -- except top leaders -- submit written requests. Early weeding is done by staff and Appropriations Committee leaders.

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