WASHINGTON -- Pork-barrel spending doesn't come up much in the presidential debates, but Hillary Clinton's $1 million bill for the Woodstock Museum got a lot more attention than she wanted in the GOP's candidate forum Sunday in Orlando, Fla.
In the larger scheme of things, Clinton's $1 million earmark isn't even the tip of the iceberg in squandering on Capitol Hill. It is a merely a snowflake in what has become a blizzard of wasteful spending for favored political interests back home in this 9-month-old Congress.
Clinton's taxpayer-funded tribute to the Woodstock concert that became a symbol of the drug-crazed, antiwar, free-love era on an upstate New York farm was raised by Sen. John McCain, the fierce, anti-pork crusader who has been fighting such spending throughout his Senate career.
"In case you missed it, a few days ago, Sen. Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock-concert museum. Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time," McCain said in a mocking tone that led to in a standing ovation for the former Vietnam POW.
In a minor victory last week for the small army of conservatives who have been attacking waste-ridden earmarks, the Senate voted 52-42 to delete the $1 million grant from the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for 2008.
Tragically, the bill is loaded with more than 800 other earmarks that will cost beleaguered taxpayers more than $400 million. Each one was inserted by lawmakers who use these bills as their personal political checkbooks, without any oversight evaluation or approval by the committees that send them to the floor for enactment.
The departments and agencies in the bill have requested none of these earmarks. "Many have little to do with the missions and priorities at the departments funded in this appropriations bill," said Citizens Against Government Waste.
Lawmakers continue to abuse -- stealing is a more appropriate word -- these funding bills for their own purely parochial self-interest. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., added $11 million to the Labor-HHS bill's health-care building projects for the University of Alabama, from which he graduated. There is $42 million for other senatorial alma maters stuffed into the bill as well.
The Democrats took control of Congress in January promising to crack down on abusive earmarking. In fact, they have watered down their so-called reforms and are adding election-year pork projects with reckless abandonment. Despite promises to cut them in half, they are now on track to easily break that pledge.
Brian Riedl, the chief budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, has been sifting through funding bills that are stacked up in Congress, awaiting passage. His finding: They contain another 11,351 pork projects that will needlessly spend tens of billions of dollars more in this fiscal year. Among them:
-- $2 million for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, named after the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman from Harlem.
-- $1 million for the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Ark.
-- $200,000 for the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, Nev., named after the multimillionaire tennis legend.
-- $500,000 for a special interest appropriately called Our Piece of the Pie, in Hartford, Conn.
-- $400,000 for the Montana World Trade Center.
-- $3.74 million to research the Formosan Subterranean Termite.
The lengthy parade of pork winding its way through Congress is stunning in its brazenness in the face of voter anger and disgust over past spending gluttony, Riedl said.
The big problems are ignored, while the petty thievery by lawmakers to feather their re-election prospects back home grows ever larger under the new Pelosi-Reid regime that runs Congress' legislative machinery.
Congress has failed to address the looming tidal wave of debt that now threatens Social Security and Medicare, "but it did decide that Boydton, Va., could use a new walking tour," Riedl said.
"Congress has not solved the burgeoning problem of the Alternative Minimum Tax" that shoves middle-class taxpayers into higher tax brackets, "but it did decide that bike trails in Highland, Ind., should be upgraded.
"Vital issues are being ignored by lawmakers who instead focus their energy on determining how much tax dollars to send to the Hunting & Fishing Museum of Pennsylvania," he said in a sweeping analysis of the mounting pork scandal.
Lawmakers say they are merely bringing federal dollars home. In fact, Riedl shows how pork projects are, in many cases, "carved out of funding streams that were already coming back to the state and local governments and private organizations anyway."
But earmarks divert much of that money to lower- or no-priority special interests that "generates publicity and campaign contributions for lawmakers who, in fact, have only tied strings to federal money that was already coming home."
If Republicans want to earn the respect and trust of the voters in next year's elections, they could start by pledging to end all earmark spending. Americans are fed up with these abuses, which is why Congress' approval rating is at a historic low.