WASHINGTON -- Staring into the abyss of minority status in Congress, Republicans signaled dedication to pork barrel spending before recessing for midterm election campaigning. Behind closed doors, the GOP's King of Pork dressed down the party's leading foe of earmarks. In the open, the last bill passed before the election was filled with carefully hidden pork.
In a caucus of Republican senators, 82-year-old, six-term Sen. Ted Stevens charged that freshman Sen. Tom Coburn's anti-pork crusade hurts the party. Stevens then removed from the final version of the Defense Department appropriations bill Coburn's "report card" requiring the Pentagon to grade earmarks. The House passed, 394 to 22, the bill, stripped of this reform and containing some 2,800 earmarks worth $11 billion. That made a mockery of a "transparency" rule passed by the House earlier this year, supposedly intended to discourage earmarks.
"You would think that with a war and all the controversy surrounding earmarks that the appropriators would hold back a little," said Steve Ellis of the non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But with an election just weeks away, they dug into the trough to find pearls to send home to their districts." Ellis located unauthorized spending embedded in the bill that was harder to find than ever. Republicans in Congress seem unaffected by their conservative base's anger over pork.
Stevens, the Senate's president pro tempore and its senior Republican, reflects a majority in both parties defending pork. He has been enraged by Dr. Coburn, the obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., challenging his seniors. But after an angry Stevens took Coburn to task for undermining party unity, the rookie was supported by the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Sen. John McCain asserted that the people backed Coburn, who then made clear he was not intimidated by Stevens.
But as the leading Senate conferee determining the final version of Defense appropriations, Stevens stealthfully pulled out Coburn's Senate-passed report card. It would require the Pentagon to assign a letter grade, from "A" to "F," on the desirability of each unrequested earmark.
The earmark process enables the Congressional-Industrial complex to fund projects the military does not want. This year's bill appropriates money to buy 10 unrequested C-17 Globemaster cargo planes from Boeing. It also funds 60 F-22A Raptor stealth fighters, not supported by the Pentagon and opposed by McCain and Sen. John Warner, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. F-22A appropriations are guaranteed for three years, reducing leverage with contractor Lockheed Martin.
Incredibly, page 336 of the bill's conference report says that under the new House rule purportedly revealing sponsors of earmarks, there were zero earmarks in this year's Defense money bill. That suggests the transparency rule is as big a sham as its critics have claimed.
The rule's biggest loophole restricts earmarks to "non-federal" spending, which would absolve the larcenous former Congressman Duke Cunningham from earmarking. By definition, all Defense expenditures are "federal." But in reality, many such appropriations end up in the hands of a private beneficiary. Thus, $4.6 million in the current bill goes to the Army Center of Excellence in Acoustics at the Jamie Whitten Center (named for a legendary congressional porker) at the University of Mississippi.
Despite the plethora of unwanted expenditures, President Bush on Sept. 29 signed the Defense bill because its overall spending is within his budget. But it requires transferring funds from needed military programs to politicians' pet projects. The $5.5 million for an unrequested telescope at the Air Force Academy may come from money for night-vision combat goggles.
Clueless Republicans are personified by Sen. Conrad Burns, trailing for re-election in Montana. Burns said opposition to all earmarks by his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Jon Tester, "showed us how reckless and out of touch he is." Burns then issued a press release listing over $775 million of his earmarks, including more than $60 million for the Fort Peck Fish Hatchery.
Tom Coburn, backed in the Senate by a few Republicans and one or two Democrats, is not giving up on earmarks. He will press his Defense report card as a freestanding bill in the lame-duck session. No matter who controls the Senate next year, Coburn will not grant unanimous consent on spending measures and thus require 60 votes to end debate. The question is whether Republican leaders, perhaps chastened by election returns, will join him.