A taste for pork

Robert Novak
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Posted: Jun 07, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, flashing her most charming smile, approached Sen. John McCain on the Senate floor May 11. "Please don't take away my tax cut, John," she said. A special interest provision benefiting Stabenow's state of Michigan was included among $18 billion in energy tax breaks that McCain tried to eliminate from an unrelated bill.

 McCain has become every Democrat's favorite Republican, and Stabenow did not enjoy colliding with him. But it did not bother her enough to support the McCain amendment, which was defeated 85 to 13 (seven Democrats and six Republicans voted yes). Pork is a bipartisan taste. For 85 senators, including leaders of both parties, it was a perfect storm -- securing benefits for their districts and pleasing the capital's mighty energy lobbyists.

 There is still a chance for Congress to reverse what McCain calls a "disgraceful performance" by cleaning up the bill in a Senate-House conference, but optimism is low. The White House has been a largely silent bystander in the process. "We're just pleased as punch," chortled Kimberly Pinter of the National Association of Manufacturers after the bill passed the Senate, and so is the entire Washington establishment.

 This latest porkfest was triggered by the need to get rid of another piece of bad legislation. A U.S. export subsidy has been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization, threatening $400 billion in retaliatory tariffs by the European Union. To compensate for the effective increase in taxes resulting from the repealed subsidy, Congress agreed that a substitute tax break was necessary.

 Two conservative Republican senators -- Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Budget Committee chairman, and Jon Kyl of Arizona -- proposed an across-the-board cut in corporate taxes. It got nowhere. Congress has been marching steadily backward into the 19th-century past of benefits earmarked for individual lawmakers.

 That included $170 billion in tax breaks, assigned to special interest groups. Citizens Against Government Waste lists them as small aircraft producers, insurance companies, shipbuilders, auto dealers, NASCAR, horse sales, cruise ships and bow-and-arrow manufacturers.

 The bill also revives $18 billion in energy tax advantages included in the energy bill that last November failed to win the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster. Intensely partisan Democrats refused to invoke cloture, not in opposition to pork but to prevent President Bush from enjoying an election-year success.

 Democrats who had choked on the same pork when it was part of Bush's energy program now swallowed it whole. So did liberal Republicans from New England, including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who sponsored a $310 million tax break for shipbuilders.

 All this would have passed without substantive debate were it not for McCain, who directed most of his fire at oil and gas subsidies in the bill exceeding $7.5 billion: "The entire oil and gas subtitle is a shameless scam, taking federal monies and giving them to enormously profitable industries with little or no benefit to the American public."

 It is not merely the powerful petroleum lobbyists who wrote the bill. The whole Congress shared in cooking up these pork delicacies. This is the traditional logrolling that Congress has been practicing for two centuries. It resulted in a final vote of 93 to 5 for the bill. The bill includes:

  -- A tax credit for the coalbed methane method of gas production that is now flourishing without federal subsidy.

  -- Financing of shopping centers and malls through $227 million in bonds. An example: DestiNY USA, an entertainment and retail development in Syracuse, N.Y.

  -- A $500 million subsidy for regional railroads and a $700 million subsidy for intercity rail service.

  -- An estimated $2 billion investment for the clean coal program (which already is spending $1.8 billion in federal money).

  -- An undetermined large subsidy for natural gas companies in purchases from the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline.

 Whether these proposals actually will produce more energy for the nation is debatable, but the size raises suspicions. "It is way too big," says Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, one of the few conservative pork-fighters in Congress. "Special interests come first," says the conservative Heritage Foundation. But the Bush administration and leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties are silent.