Congress Is Still Feeding at the Trough

Robert Bluey

5/13/2007 12:00:46 AM - Robert Bluey

It’s no secret that Rep. Jack Murtha loves his pork-barrel projects. The Pennsylvania Democrat has for years played the role of broker for his own party and the GOP to get deals done in exchange for lucrative earmarks.

But with Democrats now in control of Congress and Murtha gaining celebrity status among anti-war liberals in his party, the spotlight shines a bit brighter on the 33-year House veteran.

So when Murtha faced Republican opposition for a $23-million earmark to fund the National Drug Intelligence Center, an operation in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa., he blew a gasket -- “unleashing a loud, finger-jabbing, spittle-spraying piece of his mind,” according to The Hill.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), a fellow appropriator, was the recipient of Murtha’s tirade for voting against the earmark in committee. Murtha threatened to pull a pet project from Tiahrt’s district to exact revenge. Fortunately for both members, the situation was resolved, and they walked away from the squabble with their projects intact.

Such is life in Washington, where members of Congress still don’t get it.

Voters sent a clear message last November when they flipped 30 seats in the House and another six in the Senate, handing control to Democrats. Congress’s love affair with pork-barrel projects -- and the secrecy associated with them -- was viewed as a defining factor in the election.

Yet today, six months after the elections, the Senate still has not enacted rules making earmarks transparent. Democrats have repeatedly rebuffed efforts by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) despite promises to govern more openly.

In the House, Democrats have had difficulty following a new set of earmark rules adopted earlier this year. When an intelligence spending bill came up last week, Democrats hadn’t even told the ranking committee Republican, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), about pork projects in the bill, let alone other members or the public.

But the Democrats’ shenanigans aren’t nearly as surprising as some Republican failures on the issue. Shortly after the White House vowed to veto the pork-filled agriculture supplemental spending bill last Thursday, three Republicans -- Reps. Greg Walden (Ore.), Mike Simpson (Idaho) and Denny Rehberg (Mont.) -- not only spoke in favor of the bill, they condemned President Bush for opposing it.

Some of the most egregious items in the bill, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Brian Riedl, are $3.5 billion in crop and livestock disaster assistance; $31 million to extend the Milk Income Loss Contract program for one month; $500 million for wildlife suppression; $425 million for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act; and $60 million in fisheries aid.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) even had the gall to stick the word “emergency” in the title of the bill.

Just last month, Obey surprised fiscal conservatives when he indicated he might keep earmarks out of this year’s regular appropriations bills -- a significant victory were it actually to happen. You’d think Republicans would jump for joy. But not Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia.

Embracing Murtha’s tactic of trading votes for pork, Kingston told the National Journal, “The problem is you need Republicans to pass the bill and Republicans need their pork-barrel projects the same way Democrats always did on [the] Labor-HHS [spending bill].”

It was this attitude that cost Republicans control of Congress by discouraging the conservative base and keeping them home on Election Day. But that’s not the way Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) sees it.

Cole is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the man responsible for recruiting candidates and raising money for House Republicans in 2008. Last week he told the Washington Post: “Oh, I don’t think the problem was spending. People who argue that we lost because we weren’t true to our base, that’s just wrong.”

Cole, who is recruiting moderates over tried-and-true conservatives, subsequently “clarified” his remarks. But why would he say such a thing in the first place?

Americans who voted for a different direction in Washington surely must be disappointed with the results so far. Democrats have failed to live up to their promises of more transparency. Ultimately, their appetite for pork may outstrip that of their Republican predecessors.

It’s no wonder Congress’s approval rating dropped to 35% last week. The American people want open, responsible government, not “same old, same old” politics and pork.