Small steps may help, but won’t put stop to pork

Freedom Newspapers

There’s a serious flaw in the thinking of reformers who believe congressional pork-barrel spending can be curbed by forcing members to attach their names to the pet projects (or “earmarks”) they slip into appropriations bills, in circumvention of the normal budget procedures.

They hope bringing more transparency and accountability to the process will shame members of Congress into acting responsibly. But they underestimate the shamelessness of many members of Congress, as well as the part average citizens play as earmark-addiction enablers.

The Senate Rules Committee is working on legislation that “would allow the Senate to strip individual earmarks from conference reports, which are bills in their final stage before they are sent for the president’s signature,” according to The Washington Post. “Currently, lawmakers are often powerless to remove the provisions when legislation is so far advanced. The proposal would also require that the lawmakers who wrote the earmarks be identified and that each earmark carry an explanation of its ‘essential governmental purpose.’ In the past, much of the earmarking of legislation was done in secret. In addition, conference reports, now sometimes rushed through Congress at the 11th hour, would have to be available on the Internet 24 hours before they are voted on.”

We’re not saying these steps won’t help. But we have doubts they will end the pig-out, given that most members of Congress aren’t at all apologetic with home-state constituents about their prowess as pork-barrel practitioners. And folks back home, far from being embarrassed when members get caught with their hand in the cookie jar, cheer on the pillaging.

Americans will decry “pork” — though that outrageously wasteful project is always in another state — even while putting their home-state porker on a pedestal. “If this is pork, we’ll have a second helping,” is frequently the response when Citizens Against Government Waste publishes its annual “Pig Book” report — which last year identified $27 billion in earmarks (www.CAGW.org).

And while politicians often are stealthy about earmarking in Washington, they keep their press secretaries working overtime back home, turning out a blizzard of press releases about all the federal money they are hauling in.

Putting a name with a pork project is a “good first step” toward more accountability, said David Williams, the vice president of policy at CAGW. But “it’s still a lot easier to put a project into a bill than it is to pull it out.”

And not much would be gained by posting spending bills on the Internet 24 hours before a vote, since most of these bills are hundreds of pages long and written in a code that’s incomprehensible to average Americans. It takes Williams and CAGW staff weeks of culling through these measures to amass the Pig Book. Most Americans don’t have the time, patience or know-how to bird-dog the process.

But wouldn’t naming names force members to explain the national importance of their earmarks? Not a problem: Members of Congress are masters of selling a clearly parochial project as a “critical national priority,” and their constituents are flattered into playing along with the charade.

We appreciate the efforts and sincerity of those in Congress who are serious about putting a lid on the pork barrel. But the people also have to do their part by taking a more enlightened attitude toward home-state pork.

“They have to understand that (taxpayers from a single state) may get 20 or 30 projects worth $150 or $200 million, but that a failure to stop the abuse means (all) taxpayers are paying an extra $27 billion to fund other people’s pet projects,” Williams said. And the issue needs attention year round, not just when a lobbying scandal shines a light on Washington’s inner sanctum.

“There are five or six people in Congress who care about this issue 12 months out of the year,” Williams said. And as soon as the hullabaloo surrounding the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal dies down, everybody’s attention will turn elsewhere. “The attention span of Congress mirrors the attention span of Americans,” Williams said. “It’s extremely short.”