WASHINGTON -- Would the Democratic-controlled Senate approve a $1 million earmark to celebrate Woodstock-era baby boomers, carved out of a bill funding health care and education? It would because it is sponsored by New York's influential senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. It would because they promote the pet project of a big-time Democratic campaign contributor.
Nevertheless, as the Senate began consideration Wednesday of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed an amendment to eliminate the earmark. The $1 million goes to the performing arts center of the Bethel Museum in Liberty, N.Y., the site of the original 1969 Woodstock Festival. Coburn argues that a "taxpayer-funded Woodstock flashback" cuts into the government's Education for Homeless Children and Youth grants.
That fits a new approach by Coburn's relentless crusade against earmarks. He has told his colleagues that their addiction to pork wastes money that otherwise would build bridges, regulate mine safety and even litigate civil rights cases. All to no avail so far. The lawmakers still embrace pork and reject Coburn by the same big margin that passed Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in the previous Congress.
Even by shameless congressional standards, the Bethel earmark is extraordinary. "What Cooperstown is to baseball," says the museum's website, "Bethel could be to the baby boom." Earlier this year, Bethel advertised a "Hippiefest" as a "return to the flower-powered days of the 1960s."
Bethel typifies the earmark epidemic because political insiders often are found pushing pork. The museum is funded principally by billionaire Alan Gerry's foundation, which has annual investment income of $24 million. Federal Election Commission records show Gerry has donated at least $229,000 to political campaigns, and his wife Sandra has contributed $90,000 over the last 10 years (including $26,000 in the last election cycle to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headed by Schumer). On June 30 this year, the Gerrys gave the maximum $9,200 to Clinton's presidential campaign, three days after the two New York senators put the Bethel earmark into the Labor-HHS bill.
The same appropriations bill is packed with other earmarks that Coburn said could have helped children. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa earmarked $900,000 for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont put in $100,000 for the Lake Champlain Quadracentennial. The two Virginia senators, Republican John Warner and Democrat Jim Webb, inserted $150,000 for the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.
Coburn is after bigger game trying to eliminate $3.7 million in grants to labor unions requested by Harkin and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Coburn also seeks to remove $1.7 million added to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to fund a Hollywood liaison to advise doctor dramas and $5.1 million for "audio visual integration" in the CDC's new Thomas R. Harkin communications and visitor center.
In the previous money bill (Commerce, Justice and Science) before the Senate, Coburn on Oct. 4 tried to redirect $2.5 million in earmarks -- mainly for museums -- to fund prosecution of unsolved civil rights cases. It failed 61 to 31. On Sept. 12, Coburn lost, 63 to 32, in seeking to eliminate six out of 600 earmarks in the Transportation-HUD appropriations. They included such pork as a new baseball stadium in Billings, Mont., from the bill. He was beaten 82 to 14 in attempting to defer all earmarks until defective bridges were repaired.
Democratic party-line voting belies claims of a new climate on Capitol Hill with the change in control of Congress. On the typical 61 to 31 vote, only two Democrats -- Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- voted against earmarks. But Coburn also was opposed by 17 Republicans (including Mel Martinez of Florida, the party's general chairman, and top GOP members of the Appropriations Committee).
After the customary overwhelming defeat on the Transportation-HUD bill, Coburn blamed the Minnesota bridge failure on Congress: "We failed to make good decisions. We failed to direct dollars where they were needed most because this body is obsessed with parochial pork-barrel politics." Other senators hate it when the plain-spoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., talks that way, but they figure hardly anybody -- including the news media -- is listening.