Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Staring into the abyss of minority status in Congress, Republicans signaled dedication to pork barrel spending before recessing for midterm election campaigning. Behind closed doors, the GOP's King of Pork dressed down the party's leading foe of earmarks. In the open, the last bill passed before the election was filled with carefully hidden pork.

In a caucus of Republican senators, 82-year-old, six-term Sen. Ted Stevens charged that freshman Sen. Tom Coburn's anti-pork crusade hurts the party. Stevens then removed from the final version of the Defense Department appropriations bill Coburn's "report card" requiring the Pentagon to grade earmarks. The House passed, 394 to 22, the bill, stripped of this reform and containing some 2,800 earmarks worth $11 billion. That made a mockery of a "transparency" rule passed by the House earlier this year, supposedly intended to discourage earmarks.

"You would think that with a war and all the controversy surrounding earmarks that the appropriators would hold back a little," said Steve Ellis of the non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But with an election just weeks away, they dug into the trough to find pearls to send home to their districts." Ellis located unauthorized spending embedded in the bill that was harder to find than ever. Republicans in Congress seem unaffected by their conservative base's anger over pork.

Stevens, the Senate's president pro tempore and its senior Republican, reflects a majority in both parties defending pork. He has been enraged by Dr. Coburn, the obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., challenging his seniors. But after an angry Stevens took Coburn to task for undermining party unity, the rookie was supported by the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Sen. John McCain asserted that the people backed Coburn, who then made clear he was not intimidated by Stevens.

But as the leading Senate conferee determining the final version of Defense appropriations, Stevens stealthfully pulled out Coburn's Senate-passed report card. It would require the Pentagon to assign a letter grade, from "A" to "F," on the desirability of each unrequested earmark.

The earmark process enables the Congressional-Industrial complex to fund projects the military does not want. This year's bill appropriates money to buy 10 unrequested C-17 Globemaster cargo planes from Boeing. It also funds 60 F-22A Raptor stealth fighters, not supported by the Pentagon and opposed by McCain and Sen. John Warner, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. F-22A appropriations are guaranteed for three years, reducing leverage with contractor Lockheed Martin.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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