Trimming the fat from pork-barrel politics

Donald Lambro

12/18/2006 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

The 109th Republican Congress, in one of its last acts before adjournment, responded to the demands of voters to end the pork-barrel spending madness -- at least for now.

A pack of conservative Republican warriors, led by Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, blocked a giant, fat-filled omnibus spending bill that was stuffed with more than 10,000 waste-ridden, earmarked pork projects that would have cost $17 billion.

It was a stunning political turnaround that showed this all-too-often imperial, arrogant and out-of-control Congress belatedly got the message from voters that they were fed up with the squandering of their money on pork projects (known as "earmarks"), which have pushed budget deficits to record levels.

Heading into its final days, Congress had already passed the defense and homeland security appropriations bills, leaving nine spending bills unfinished and in limbo. That was expected to result in an omnibus, catchall spending package that has been used to hide tens of billions of dollars in wasteful pork, mysteriously tucked into its opaque provisions.

But DeMint, Coburn and Sessions blocked its passage, substituting a so-called continuing resolution that will keep most of the government's agencies operating at fiscal 2006 spending levels until Feb. 15, 2007.

Then came another stunning development in the continuing spending wars that dominate much of Congress's deliberations: Incoming House and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairmen David Obey, D-Wis., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., promised to pass a continuing resolution (CR) for the rest of fiscal 2007 (which ends next September) to keep spending levels where they are now. What this means is that the incoming 110th Congress, if Obey and Byrd succeed in their pledge, will not pass the remaining appropriations bills but will keep non-defense departments and agencies on a CR spending hold through the entire fiscal year.

These developments had spending critics cheering last week that the Election Day message was heard loud and clear on both sides of the aisle and that the rate of spending increases, for the time being at least, will be reined in. No one was happier about this than Citizens Against Government Waste, the fiercely combative anti-pork lobby that sent out a news release titled "Congress Goes Kosher: CAGW Cheers Pork-Free Diet." "Today's announcement is a huge victory for taxpayers," said CAGW President Tom Schatz. "A CR pre-empts funding increases for bloated federal agencies and thousands of pork-barrel projects. However, Congress must pass earmark reforms during its pork diet or it will gain back the weight it loses," he said. Throw in the Democrats' promise to forgo next year's congressional pay raise and the word going out seems to be that it will not be business as usual on Capitol Hill. We'll see. ... Whatever happens next year, these events represent a stunning blow to the orgy of pork-barrel spending that both parties have engaged in with uncontrolled gluttony.

"This is an important victory for American taxpayers," DeMint said. "Americans voted in November for a return to fiscal responsibility and for an end to the wasteful and sometimes corrupt practice of pork-barrel spending. The earmarking system has become a favor factory that doles out money based on power and influence rather than merit and need, and it must be reformed."

Congress passed 12,852 earmarks in the last fiscal year, according to the Congressional Research Service. DeMint says the action he and his fellow conservatives took last week "effectively cut the number of earmarks by 80 percent down to 2,600 for fiscal year 2007." Now the battle turns to reforming the budget process to stop or at least reduce future pork-barrel spending abuses.

Among the recommendations pushed by CAGW: Require that the authors and sponsors of earmarks be disclosed; Severely limit the number of earmarks each lawmaker can request; Ban earmarks that have not been considered in a congressional committee hearing; Prohibit earmarks from being slipped into spending bills during House-Senate conference negotiations; Make conference reports containing the details of all provisions in negotiated spending bills available at least two days before they are sent to the floor for consideration.

Of the many spending abuses perpetrated by Congress over the years, none has been more outrageous and corrupt than earmarks whose costs have exploded in the last decade. The bill for these pork projects has grown from $3.1 billion in fiscal '91 to $29 billion in fiscal 2006, according to CAGW's annual Congressional Pig Book. Now we are entering a period that will test whether anyone notices that the budget is being run on a flat-line continuing resolution for the coming year.

"If the sky does not fall, if flat budgets make no difference in the lives of everyday citizens, it explodes the myth that congressional pork and spending increases are truly necessary," Schatz said. My guess is that no one will notice except the big money interests who have picked our pockets for far too long. The voters have spoken and, lo and behold, things are changing. Who says you can't beat the system?