POLITICS FEBRUARY 24, 2002
Representative Sam Graves surely considers himself important to the Bush administration. A Republican freshman from the Kansas City, Missouri, area, Graves has been a good conservative soldier during his first year in the House. And, given that he was elected with just 51 percent of the vote and is considered highly vulnerable this fall, the White House should want to help him. So Graves was presumably nonplussed when the administration singled out one of his few legislative accomplishments for ridicule earlier this month. As part of a White House campaign to appear fiscally conservative by targeting pork-barrel spending, the Education Department released a list of local projects that could be chopped this year to meet a shortage of money for Pell Grants. On the list was $273,000 that Graves had secured to help Blue Springs, Missouri, combat teenage "Goth" culture--that is, to keep kids who wear black lipstick and listen to Marilyn Manson from becoming the next Dylan Klebold.
Dozens of Graves's colleagues found themselves in the same boat. "bush budget proposal: many Nevada projects at risk," declared the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "area projects feel the sting of bush cuts," announced The Wichita Eagle. "western New York funding feels heat from bush's budget office," fretted The Buffalo News. The complete White House budget released a few days later went even further, ridiculing at length the congressional practice of "earmarking"--slipping funding into big spending bills, usually just before final passage, with no debate or scrutiny and citing many more frivolous-sounding examples.
The embarrassment is especially acute for Republicans like Graves, who want to show off their close ties to a president enjoying 80 percent approval ratings. Having the White House target your local projects is like being stuck behind the velvet rope of an exclusive nightclub: It looks like you're not a player. And, the thinking goes, that could be bad news when the midterm elections roll around. "Despite their party's rallying cry of fiscal restraint, many [Republicans] are distressed that Mr. Bush's proposals to cut members' domestic projects will imperil them in November," explained The New York Times' Richard Berke. Meanwhile, gleeful Democrats are publicly rubbing salt into the wounds of insulted Republicans, staging budget conference calls with local reporters, ginning up press conferences, and inciting community activists. Last week Roll Call reported that Ohio Representative Ralph Regula had been receiving phone calls from nervous colleagues "worried that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already begun to use the issue to stir up trouble in their districts." One House Democratic aide puts it this way: "[The party] is looking for a wedge between an eighty percent president and House members on the ground.... This is putting a very human face on macrobudget cuts."
If only. The truth is that Democrats probably won't be able to exploit this battle between the White House and its congressional allies--because there isn't any real battle at all. As Jonathan Chait noted last week (see "Hide and Sneak," February 18), few if any of the projects the administration cites will actually be eliminated. Last year the White House made a grand show of chopping pork, but it abandoned the fight before expending one cent of political capital. And this year promises the same charade. In fact, not only will congressional Republicans get to keep their cherished goodies, but the administration's halfhearted war on pork may actually do them a favor by giving them a chance to battle back against the proposed cuts and show off their supposed clout in Washington. A GOP campaign official explains the political dance taking place: "The president gets to show himself as a defender against waste, fraud, and abuse. The member gets to fight for local spending in his district. It's a winner all around." The only losers are people who actually want to eliminate pork.
Pork is as old as elective government, but nearly everyone agrees that it has gotten out of hand in recent years. The White House notes that the number of congressional earmarks rose from 6,454 in 2000 to more than 7,800 last year--totaling about $15 billion in scrutiny-free spending. Take just a few examples from the last few years: $700,000 for a jazz-history institute at the University of Idaho (a pet project of GOP Senator Larry Craig); $1.5 million for a statue of the Roman god Vulcan in Birmingham, Alabama (a gift from Republican Senator Richard Shelby); $950,000 for a Dr. Seuss memorial in Springfield, Massachusetts (thank you, Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Representative Richard Neal). Even aides to congressional appropriators who fiercely defend their pork prerogatives admit the excess. "Do we agree that earmarks are getting out of hand? Hell yeah," says one.
Why has it gotten worse? For a period in the mid-1990s Congress's appetite for pork seemed to be waning. Americans had become deficit-conscious. And the GOP revolutionaries who stormed Congress in the 1994 elections were obsessed--at least at first--with cutting fat from the budget. But, by the late '90s, pork was making a clear comeback. For one thing, the budget surplus made it less shameful for a member (say, Senator Robert Byrd) to grab money for a dubious project in his state (say, $2 million for a Center on Obesity at West Virginia University). One GOP budget insider points to two other factors. One is the tight balance of power in Congress, which makes votes closer and, thus, allows members to extort more for their yea or nay. Also, the six-year term limits that Republicans placed on committee chairmanships in 1995 mean that powerful members are more inclined to help out their supplicant colleagues, knowing that their roles could soon be reversed.
In the budget itself, the White House eloquently explains the evils of all this pork: Even when the money may sound like it's going to a worthy endeavor (for instance, after-school programs), the administration notes, the effect is usually to divert money from a federal agency that might spend it more wisely or efficiently. Did Moscow, Idaho, (population 22,000) really need a $1 million "intelligent transportation" grant more than did dozens of other cities? Worse still are the cases in which members steer important scientific research projects to their districts--"an especially bad idea, because it enables special interest pressure to end-run the competitive selection of proposals through scientific peer review," the budget explains. In last year's agriculture spending bill alone, Congress approved 444 such projects totaling $317 million--up 39 percent from the year before.
If only the White House really believed its own anti-pork line. Democratic aides point out that the administration has been quick to buy off wavering members of Congress on key votes like trade-promotion authority and airport security by promising them pork projects in the budget. And the White House has made it pretty clear that the current war on pork will consist of a lot of talk and little action. In fact, Budget Director Mitch Daniels already seems resigned to its failure--he readily admits that his showdown with congressional appropriators last year was a fiasco. (Daniels was nearly run out of town by cranky budget barons like Byrd and Alaska's Ted Stevens, who suggested he "go back to Indiana.") Republicans who have called the White House in recent days are getting signals that their projects are safe. New York Republican Felix Grucci made such a call after learning of a local funding cut last week and, says his spokesman, "was assured he'll be able to keep that"; other offices report hearing the same message. And, in a meeting earlier this year with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young and other congressional appropriations "cardinals," Bush made it clear that, like last year, his priority is the budget's bottom line, not stripping out the pork per se.
Of course, Bush isn't the only one being insincere. All those members courageously fighting to restore their vital local projects can also be counted on to speak disdainfully of the "wasteful" spending a few states, or even districts, away. "You fight for your local projects and fight against unrestrained spending, which is spending in someone else's district," the GOP campaign official helpfully counsels. The message is already catching on. "There are, I suspect, pork projects out there that don't meet those minimum requirements" of legitimacy, Graves's spokesman says by way of defending his boss's anti-Goth dollars. "But this is not one of them." Of course not--those kids are scary!