In the Christmas spirit of gift-giving, the Senate is about to wrap up 6,700 extravagant presents known as earmarks and send the $8-billion bill to the taxpayers.
With senators thumbing their noses at the voters who last month sent a clear and unmistakable message to Congress to stop the spending binge and slash this year's $1.3-trillion budget deficit, this pork-barrel spending was tucked into a $1.2-trillion spending bill to keep the government funded for the rest of this fiscal year.
These so-called earmarks are spending provisions that neither the government agencies nor the White House sought, and were not approved by any committee of Congress. In many cases, the government specifically disapproved them.
They were slipped into the 1,924-page spending bill by mostly anonymous lawmakers who use -- abuse would be a better word -- the budget process as their private charge card and political slush fund, sending the bill to their constituents at tax time.
Take, for example, the $900,000 earmark from two Mississippi Republican senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, which will pay for an elaborate beach promenade in the port city of Pascagoula, including new pristine beaches and illuminated jogging paths, all surrounded by the best landscaping money can buy. Pascagoula got the earmark it wanted by paying a bunch of Washington lobbyists $40,000 a year to clinch the sweetheart deal. But that was just a stocking-stuffer for the two senators who are the kings of pork in the Senate.
There was the airport expansion in Tunica for $1.75 million, a bicycle and hiking trail in Hattiesburg for $700,000, and a lighted river walk in Columbus for $300,000, among the hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks on their holiday shopping list.
According to an investigation by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, Cochran signed off on 263 earmarks to the tune of $522.2 million, and Wicker sponsored 223 earmarks that total $415.4 million.
That put them ahead of every other senator in the waste-ridden, gift-giving sweepstakes. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, checked off 141 earmarks for his very closest friends for a mere $325 million, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stuffed 42 earmarks into the bill, costing beleaguered taxpayers $86.1 million.
But the intense and justified anger expressed by the voters last month over skyrocketing federal spending and a staggering public debt that is nearing $14 trillion seems to have scared a few senators who are among the worst offenders --- some of whom saw their earmarks exposed on the nightly network news.
Wicker now says he will vote against the omnibus bill and swore he will not seek earmarks for his state next year.
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who chairs his party's senatorial campaign committee, and John Thune, R-S.D., mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, have dipped into earmarks worth $15.7 million and $38.5 million respectively.
But in a miraculous Christmas conversion at a news conference Wednesday, both said they are quitting their addiction to pork cold turkey.
"Earmarks are a symptom of wasteful Washington spending that the American people have said they want reformed. We agree with them, and that's why we will vote against this bill," Cornyn said.
Perhaps the biggest and most wasteful earmark of all is the $450 million for an alternative engine for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane, an engine the Pentagon does not want, the administration has not sought and the Appropriations Committee has not included in its defense-spending bill.
But these eleventh-hour conversions may not count for much in the end. The Senate is running against the clock to close the budget books on this Congress before the new GOP-leaning Congress takes over next month. And Democratic leaders say they have the votes to clear the bill and send it to the House, whose 423-page bill essentially freezes spending at 2010 budget levels and contains no earmarks.
Incredibly, however, the White House has indicated that it is willing to accept the Senate version, beach-landscaping earmarks and all -- despite President Obama's post-election statements that he wants to end wasteful "business as usual."
"Even after the election shellacking, the president and his party doesn't get it," said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. "If he is serious about working together, he needs to take it seriously and pledge to veto this pork-laden spending bill."
Next year's spending and earmark battles may be different, when House Republicans take majority control of the House and de facto control of the Senate. Republicans, including McConnell, have voted in their party caucuses to end the insidious practice and, more importantly, end runaway spending and significantly shrink the size of the government's monstrous debt.
We will know soon enough whether the GOP delivers on its solemn campaign promise to the American people, who are fed up and want spending brought under control now.