Under-Cut

By

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 frivoloussounding 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!

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.