Marketplace, December 24, 2003
It's holiday gift time. And the biggest gift-givers this holiday season are
Republican members of Congress.
The huge omnibus spending bill that's passed the House and will be voted on in
the Senate when it reconvenes in Washington is loaded with special gifts. Known
in Washington as "earmarks," and known to the rest of us know as
pork, these gift items have escaped all notice and accountability. There were
no hearings on them, and no competitive bidding for them. There's no reason for
any of them except that members of Congress want to curry favor in order to get
The pork in this one bill totals $23 billion. That's a new record. Pork-barrel
spending has doubled in the last five years.
This year's gift items include $50 million for a 4-and-a-half acre indoor rain
forest in Coralville, Iowa, courtesy of Republican Senator Charles Grassley, of
Iowa. Then there's $1 million for the Anchorage Museum, courtesy of Alaska
Republican Senator Ted Sevens. Representative Jim Gibbins, Republican of
Nevada, gets a quarter of a million dollars to repair a swimming pool in his
hometown of Sparks, Nevada.
And on and on it goes: $200,000 to the University of Hawaii to produce a
documentary on Kalahari Bushmen, $220,000 to the University of Maine to
renovate a blueberry research center. Here's a good one: Half a million dollars
to the University of Akron for a program called "Exercises in Hard
Choices," examining how Congress makes budget decisions.
All this would be bad enough if the federal government was flush with cash. But
let me remind you: We're deep in the hole. The federal deficit is flowing red
ink. This year's deficit alone will be over $400 billion. We're fighting a war
against terrorism that's costing more than anyone ever imagined. Meanwhile,
American farmers are getting billions in extra subsidies. There's a giant $1.7
trillion tax break, and a huge drug benefit just added to Medicare. And what
about the tens of millions of baby boomers within eyesight of retirement? Where
are we ever going to get the money to pay their Social Security and Medicare?
Republicans are in control, folks. They used to preach fiscal conservativism.
Now they've opened the flood gates. And on top of everything else, they're
flooding the nation with pork.
At least if the President had a line-item veto, the buck would stop at the Oval
Office. He'd have to explain why he had allowed $50 million for the Iowa rain
forest, for example. But the Supreme Court, you may remember, rejected the
line-item veto because they said it gave the president power that properly
belonged with Congress.
Here's a better idea. When the spending bill comes to his desk, give the
president power to highlight all this pork -- call it a "pork
budget," if you will -- and then send the pork budget back to Congress and
require both houses to vote up or down on it. This way, members would have to
stand up and be counted. Are they for pork or against it?
The only problem with my idea: Congress would have to enact it.