Pork barrel claims may be larding the truth

Study finds federal rules guide funding more than individual political power

April 09, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Every election year, members of Congress campaign by boasting of how much federal money their experience has steered to their districts, but a new study by the Center for National Policy suggests that individual House members affect those totals only slightly.

In Illinois, for example, the representative with the most influence is the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert of Yorkville, who represents the 14th District. But the almost $2.42 billion his district received in 1999 ranked 16th among the state's 20 districts.

In Michigan, the most influential member is surely Rep. John D. Dingell, ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee and a House member since 1955. But his 16th District, around Dearborn, ranked eighth among the state's 16 districts with more than $2.79 billion.

Frances E. Lee, assistant professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said a major reason for rankings like these was that "more than 90 percent of federal funds are distributed by formula."

"Members of Congress can't move that money around with great ease," Lee said. "Formulas last, so they don't track changes in constituent power very easily."

The biggest differences in receipts among districts depend on the demographics of age and poverty. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid combined to account for 57 percent to 65 percent of federal dollars received in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, the states whose 1999 federal dollars were examined by the center, a research and policy institution here. Those programs are entitlements, meaning that whoever meets eligibility standards gets the assistance.

In Ohio, for example, the 11th District, in Cleveland, received more money than any other in the state, about $3.24 billion, and more than $2.08 billion of that came from the three big entitlement programs.

The district's representative, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Democrat, serves on the Banking and Small Business committees, neither of which directs vast federal spending. But the district's poverty places it 18th out of 19 Ohio districts in household income, and its receipts from Medicaid, the health program for the poor, exceed all other districts'.

Thomas E. Mann, of the Brookings Institution, said the data underlined the fact that while there were "incremental successes by particular people," most boasts of bringing home the bacon amounted to pointing "with pride to benefits that would have already been going to the district."

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