Pork vs. Leisure

Posted: Dec 08, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate, its members refreshed by the Thanksgiving break, goes back into session Tuesday. But not all of its members, and not for long. Despite pressure from the White House and the House of Representatives, too few senators will return to Washington to get anything done.

That delays passage of the $820 billion omnibus appropriations bill, funding 12 departments of government, until January. Also held up will be one pork barrel project after another. Even earmarked spending inserted by Capitol Hill barons will have to wait.

Congressional lust for pork, never before so insatiable, collides with the growing antipathy to sustained work. Members of both houses seem not to be motivated by their ever-rising pay, which now has reached $158,000 -- far out of the reach of most fellow Americans. Yet, senators refuse to alter their plans for travel, golf, hunting and fishing in order to be on hand in Washington to consider their special spending. They would rather defer pork than leisure.

Thanks to the dysfunctional modern Senate, an omnibus bill is needed to enact appropriations that were supposed to have been passed individually by the end of the fiscal year Oct. 1. This measure then evolves into a Christmas tree suitable for hanging pork delicacies. But when will this bill be passed?

Before Thanksgiving, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist made a deal with his colleagues. If the senators would please stay on the job a while longer to enact prescription drug subsidies, he promised they would not be called back to duty the rest of the year. Meanwhile, to maximize vacation time, Congress postponed reconvening from Jan. 6 to Jan. 20.

The Senate will return Tuesday for a one-day pro forma session that could pass the omnibus bill only under a procedure requiring unanimous consent. The U.S. Senate looks increasingly like the 18th-century Polish Diet, where a single deputy could overrule a decision under the "liberum veto." Democrat Robert C. Byrd, who in his 45th year as senator is an engine of obstruction, announced he would refuse to give unanimous consent. Frist protested that he would be breaking his word if he called senators back, and asserted that not enough would come if he did.

The White House has been pleading with Frist to summon the senators even though the delay in passing the omnibus bill might save $4 billion (not a major consideration lately at the Bush White House). President Bush wants his provisions in the bill for AIDS money, assistance to poor countries under the Millennium Challenge and school choice in the District of Columbia.

House Republican leaders also have been hectoring Frist to recall his troops to adopt big infusions of earmarked pork that have been placed in the bill without hearings or debate. Rep. C.W. (Bill) Young, House Appropriations chairman, has sponsored the single largest morsel for his St. Petersburg, Fla., district: $50 million to keep a new Treasure Island Causeway toll free. The bridge would not be paid for by people who use it but by all Americans, which is the essence of the congressional pork system.

St. Petersburg benefits from being represented by the Appropriations Committee chairman, with Young earmarking $300,000 for the Dali Museum there. Other big-time earmarks include $1.9 million for a wind demonstration project in Texas, $1.2 for inspiring science and technology in Manchester, N.H., and $725,000 for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.

Iowa gets about $17.5 million in projects thanks to Sen. Charles Grassley, who as Senate Finance Committee chairman is one of the reigning kings of pork. But Iowa lags behind Tennessee, which has a majority leader. Frist last week trumpeted $53 million in earmarks for his state. That's how $1 million each is provided for safe docking at the Beale Street Landing in Memphis and electric transit vehicle research in Chattanooga.

None of this pork will be debated or seriously scrutinized, much less eliminated. The lassitude of the legislative process leads to immense catchall bills that discourage analysis and defy dismemberment. The most enthusiastic of congressional earmarkers deplore the delay, but not even the sweet taste of pork can interfere with lawmakers taking their leisure.