Pork as policy, turkeys as congressmen

Posted: Apr 18, 2004 12:00 AM

When it comes to the real issues in Congress, there is only one. Day after day, year after year, the issue is how to divvy up the body politic as fat slabs of pork.

In the good ol' days of just a decade ago, pork was quietly stuffed into various bills and sneaked through the Congress. Today, pork seems the raison d'?e for these monster bills that are little else.

The Republican-controlled Congress provides ample evidence to conclude that wielding political power and spending other people's money trump party affiliation. Republican congressmen have beaten Democrats at the polls and then again at the trough of wasteful spending. The last highway bill in Democratic hands had 538 pork projects earmarked for specific congressmen. This latest bill had 3,193 earmarked expenditures.

The fact that Congress has become even more of a smorgasbord and that there seems to be no stopping these big pig-outs is worth some reflection. Let's look at the highway bill just passed by the House. Representative Don Young of Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, managed to put two laughable projects into the legislation.

Taxpayers across the nation will pay to build two bridges in Alaska. One bridge connects Ketchikan, population 8,000, and lonely Gravina Island, home to 50 souls. Yup: $120 million for a bridge to an island that has 50 people on it. Yet, your taxes are building quite an impressive bridge--higher than the Brooklyn Bridge and just as long as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Then there's the bridge being built between the Port of Anchorage and Mackenzie Port. What's that? You've never heard of Mackenzie Port? You don't know why it needs a $200 million bridge? Maybe that's because Mackenzie Port has a permanent population of one. Not 1,000 or 100; just one.

These projects amuse us on late night TV, but the cost isn't funny: $320 million for both.

Congressman Young admits that "[i]t's not a good way to legislate, although I got a lot of stuff in it. I mean I stuffed it like a turkey."

Congressmen regularly admit that what they do is wrong or isn't "good"; that the Congress they work in is dominated by special interests; that they are "all corrupt." I don't know about you, but I'm convinced that on these matters--and these matters only--congressmen are actually telling the truth.

Young is not without excuses. He explains that Alaska came late to the game--becoming a state in 1959--so they have make up for lost time. Apparently, we should have been sending pork to Alaska a long time ago, subsidizing Wooly Mammoths, perhaps.

Don Young also blames term limits on committee chairmen, imposed by Republican House Caucus rule. With less time to wield power, Young suggests he has to do his ripping-off of taxpayers as fast as possible, before he loses his seat. Such is the logic we have come to expect from entrenched politicians.

Yet, the poor fellow is forced to compete with Senator Pork: Ted Stevens, also of Alaska. "I'd like to be a little oinker, myself," Mr. Young says good-naturedly when compared to Stevens. "If he's the chief porker, I'm upset." Earlier this year, I detailed just how Senator Stevens became a millionaire through using his powerful position and our tax dollars.

Some citizens of other states may be a tad jealous of the largesse shipped back to Alaskans. But the envy is misplaced, for the pork benefits the politicians and those connected to them, not the average Alaskan.

It's true, the Ketchikan bridge project will bring some jobs to the area--temporarily. But as mariner Dale Collins told The New York Times, "The funny thing, when that big bridge is done, it will take more time to get to the airport than it does now on our little ferry." A ferry that may be put out of business.

Small businessman Mike Salle knows the score: "[I]t's just a boondoggle that we're getting because we have a powerful congressman. That ferry of ours has been pretty darn reliable."

What can be done? First, we need to devolve power from Washington back to the states and localities, where voters have at least some measure of influence on their elected officials.

Why should the politicians most removed from our control--Washington congressmen--take the biggest bite out of our wallet? What possible rationale exists for sending tax dollars from our own states to Congress, knowing that Congress intends to take a cut and then ship the money back, with added mandates to control how we spend it?

The best way to stop Don Young and his ilk from wasting our money is to never let them get their slimy little fingers on it to begin with. Granted, our state representatives aren't always so stellar. But they are closer to us, we can often talk to them face to face; they are more vulnerable at the polls because the advantages of incumbency are less; and, in 24 states, we have the citizen initiative process to overrule them.

Second, we need term limits. Term limits could be justified merely as a way to punish the likes of Don Young, but that's never been the chief animator of the term limits movement. The impact of term limits is in changing incentives, and nowhere would it reverse the incentives more than in our pork-barreling Congress.

The longer people stay in Congress, the more they tax and spend. Why? Because they realize their personal power and influence is directly tied to the power and control exercised by the federal government. The longer they stay, the more spending millions and billions and trillions of other people's money becomes ho-hum.

Would Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa have suggested in his first term that taxpayers should spend $50 million to build a rain forest in Iowa? But after 24 years in the Senate, he was no longer too shy to send us the bill.

It is no accident that porkers like Don Young, Ted Stevens, and Charles Grassley have been in Congress for decades, as regular readers of my free Common Sense e-letter know well. Meanwhile, the very best friend of the taxpayer--according to the National Taxpayers Union--is Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has pledged to serve no more than three terms in the Congress.

People who rip off the taxpayers are called crooks. What do you call a congressman who charges $320 million for two bridges to nowhere?

Another great reason for term limits.