Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Would the Democratic-controlled Senate approve a $1 million earmark to celebrate Woodstock-era baby boomers, carved out of a bill funding health care and education? It would because it is sponsored by New York's influential senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. It would because they promote the pet project of a big-time Democratic campaign contributor.

Nevertheless, as the Senate began consideration Wednesday of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed an amendment to eliminate the earmark. The $1 million goes to the performing arts center of the Bethel Museum in Liberty, N.Y., the site of the original 1969 Woodstock Festival. Coburn argues that a "taxpayer-funded Woodstock flashback" cuts into the government's Education for Homeless Children and Youth grants.

That fits a new approach by Coburn's relentless crusade against earmarks. He has told his colleagues that their addiction to pork wastes money that otherwise would build bridges, regulate mine safety and even litigate civil rights cases. All to no avail so far. The lawmakers still embrace pork and reject Coburn by the same big margin that passed Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in the previous Congress.

Even by shameless congressional standards, the Bethel earmark is extraordinary. "What Cooperstown is to baseball," says the museum's website, "Bethel could be to the baby boom." Earlier this year, Bethel advertised a "Hippiefest" as a "return to the flower-powered days of the 1960s."

Bethel typifies the earmark epidemic because political insiders often are found pushing pork. The museum is funded principally by billionaire Alan Gerry's foundation, which has annual investment income of $24 million. Federal Election Commission records show Gerry has donated at least $229,000 to political campaigns, and his wife Sandra has contributed $90,000 over the last 10 years (including $26,000 in the last election cycle to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headed by Schumer). On June 30 this year, the Gerrys gave the maximum $9,200 to Clinton's presidential campaign, three days after the two New York senators put the Bethel earmark into the Labor-HHS bill.

The same appropriations bill is packed with other earmarks that Coburn said could have helped children. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa earmarked $900,000 for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont put in $100,000 for the Lake Champlain Quadracentennial. The two Virginia senators, Republican John Warner and Democrat Jim Webb, inserted $150,000 for the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

Robert Novak

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

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