Don't mess with pork!

Posted: Sep 12, 2000 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Never before in my 43 years of reporting on Congress had I ever seen a U.S. senator publicly tongue-lash a Cabinet member as Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia did Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson on June 21. The supposed cause was national security, but the real issue is pork. Congress reconvened last week after its summer recess, ready to earmark favorite pork-barrel projects with Richardson disarmed as a critic. "You will never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed," Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat, had lectured Richardson. He accused the Secretary of "supreme arrogance" and "extreme contempt" for not appearing a week earlier at a Senate hearing on the latest security goof at the Los Alamos laboratory. His absence was an inexcusable blunder by an experienced politician who served 14 years as a member of Congress. Richardson's true lese majesty, however, was not his one-time no-show on a security question that within days was forgotten. It was his continuing opposition to congressional larding of pet projects into appropriations bills. Bob Byrd has transformed himself from the right-of-center former Klansman elected in 1958 to the Senate's resident historian and protector of its traditions. But unmistakably, he is also Capitol Hill's King of Pork, and that is the real source of Richardson's trouble with him. Unlike his predecessors at Energy, Richardson put a microscope to 37 congressional earmarks (valued at $58 million) contained in this year's appropriations bill for his department. He found some were really pure pork, and $13.5 million worth remained objectionable, even after negotiations with their sponsors. In that category was $1 million pushed by Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama for an unauthorized science research facility at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was outside the Energy Department's mission. That may explain why the senator was so exercised at the June hearing on the Los Alamos security violation. "You have lost what credibility you had left on Capitol Hill," Republican convert Shelby told his former colleague in the House Democratic Caucus. Congress is a house of mirrors, and the nationally televised dressing down before the Senate Armed Services Committee obscured what really was happening. To understand, it is necessary to go back to a little noticed April 11 hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that votes money for the Energy Department. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, chairman of the full committee, complained about the Shelby earmark not being approved. Actually, Stevens had his own complaints. Byrd's successor as Appropriations chairman, Stevens tries to do for Alaska what Byrd has done for West Virginia. In April, he upbraided Richardson for blocking earmarked Indian energy grants in Sitka and Nome -- indeed, for even daring to review any earmarks. He threatened to block all Energy Department spending "until you stop holding up congressional priorities." Stevens made it clear: "This really irritates me." Byrd also was peeved at Richardson for delaying his own earmarks. That included funds for the Natural Energy Technology Laboratory and the Positron Emission Tomography Center, both at West Virginia University in Morgantown. But most of all, Byrd was upset by what he viewed as Richardson's audacity. "We need to get back to the old time religion here," he told the Secretary. "We need to get back to some old time thinking." The senator was true to his word. Congress forced Richardson to fund the pork-barrel projects by enacting mandatory legislation costing $13.5 million for eight projects (including Shelby's University of Alabama construction project). Richardson not only lost his war on pork but suffered personally. Byrd's jeremiad extinguished the Secretary's meager hopes of being Al Gore's running mate and miniaturized his political stature. Congressional addiction to pork is a bipartisan affliction. Such critics as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are outsiders abhorred by the establishment. The lawmakers consider satisfaction of their constituents the priority for dispensing the big surplus. What happened to Bill Richardson sends this message to members of the next Cabinet, whatever the results of this year's presidential election: Don't mess with pork!