Lawmakers cling to pet projects

$50,000 to lose tattoos, millions for god of fire

January 19, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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