WASHINGTON -- The deepening congressional addiction to pork, excoriated by John McCain as a presidential candidate last year, was assaulted by George W. Bush as president this week. The most remarkable, if largely overlooked, aspect of President Bush's first budget is an attempt to wean lawmakers from using taxpayer funds for earmarked pet projects back home.
The addiction is as old as the American Republic but transcended all previous bounds during the past six years when Republicans controlled Congress. Last year, the appetite for pork was astounding. Congress jumped over the regular authorization process to provide funds for an unprecedented 6,554 separate items craved by individual members. The price tag: close to $17 billion.
The president, releasing the budget, told reporters: "Washington is known for its pork. The budget funds our needs without the fat." More telling than such rhetoric, however, are page after page in the 60-page budget summary describing reduced domestic spending programs as "unrequested earmarks." Bush wants to get rid of all of them.
It won't be easy. McCain hailed his old adversary for taking on "congressional sacred cows," but the few cheers on Capitol Hill were muted. Even so firm a Bush loyalist as Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the House GOP campaign chairman, sounded ambivalent. "I think the reality is you will never end the earmarks," he said on CNN's "Crossfire." When I asked why, he replied: "That's just the way it works."
Davis contended the 4 percent cap on new spending would mean "fewer earmarks." That's a formula for trimming pork a little without curing the addiction. In contrast, while OMB Director Mitch Daniels knows all earmarking cannot be eliminated, his budget is a frontal assault.
That exposes Bush to criticism of proposals such as $1.4 billion less for the Agriculture Department. Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, whose Harlem district contains no farmland, deplored cutting federal funds for "our most productive industry" that needs "federal assistance to stay in business." Actually, the reduction comes from subtracting one-time emergency funding ($1.2 billion) and unrequested earmarks for government research products ($218 billion).
A few days before the budget's release, The New York Times reported $15.7 million would be cut from grants to fight child abuse (still leaving $71.8 million). What the story left unsaid was that the money eliminated came from a congressional earmark not requested by the Clinton administration.
Much of the reductions that caused weeping on Capitol Hill would wipe out earmarks such as a whopping $1.5 billion in transportation. Here's a sample of the thousands of items that the Bush administration rejects: $1 million for the Big Creek Watershed demonstration project in Roswell, Ga.; $2 million for an underground mining locomotive demonstration project powered by hydrogen in Nevada; $925,000 for the "Please Touch Museum" in Philadelphia; $700,000 for the University of Idaho's Institute for the Historic Study of Jazz; and $750,000 for the World Police and Fire Games in Indiana.
Bush is also taking a crack at a target Ronald Reagan occasionally eyed but never attacked: corporate welfare. That includes eliminating the notorious $115 million spent last year on oil and steel subsidies, $94 million in development programs that the oil and gas industry can afford to spend itself, and $215 million in health profession training grants created over 40 years ago to alleviate a shortage that no longer exists.
But apart from Sen. McCain, Republican Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and a corporal's guard of others, members of Congress are not interested in reforming the budget process. On the Senate floor last week, Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio offered an amendment to curb phony emergency spending bills and prevent "a repeat of the feeding frenzy and pork barreling" that sent last year's spending up 14 percent. It failed by six votes, as the two barons of the Appropriations Committee -- Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Robert Byrd -- opposed it.
Byrd is the Senate's King of Pork, whose current earmarks rejected by Bush include $249,450 for potato research enhancement in Prosser, W. Va. Last June, he delivered a televised tongue-lashing to then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson after Richardson tried to curb Byrd's West Virginia earmarks covered by his department. Byrd prevailed, when Richardson went unsupported by President Bill Clinton. This time a president is allied against the porkers, with the potent veto weapon in his hand.