Liz Elsewhere

The Seattle P-I , October 19th, 2007
“Congress loves to bring home the bacon”
by Liz Mair Link to original source


Wasteful government spending is a pet peeve of most voters. But it's also something we're guaranteed to see more of as Congress moves to pass a glut of fiscal year 2008 appropriations bills over the coming weeks.

After all, those bills contain vast numbers of earmarks -- those pesky legislative provisions dishing out money to specific companies, organizations or localities and all too often associated with waste and corruption. For that, readers can thank the D.C. crowd as a whole -- but they can also thank their own legislators, who have themselves willingly engaged in this year's earmark frenzy.

Take for example the fiscal year 2008 agriculture and defense bills. According to fiscal watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, the House version of the agriculture appropriations bill (passed in August) contains no less than 410 earmarks requested by members of Congress, worth just under $300 million, whereas the Senate version (yet to be passed) contains 332 earmarked projects worth more than $300 million.

Among the earmarks in the House bill is one worth $246,000 sought by Rep. Norm Dicks, Rep. Doc Hastings and Rep. Rick Larsen for "asparagus technology and production" in Washington -- apparently a major national priority. The Senate legislation also sets aside money for asparagus via Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell's $200,000 earmark to fund "research and development of technologies" to reduce its production cost.

The fiscal year 2008 defense appropriations bill contains even more earmarks, and yet more dubious ones. Taxpayers for Common Sense says the House version of that bill includes 1,409 earmarks worth $6.5 billion, while the Senate version has 936 earmarks worth $5.2 billion. Among those in the House bill is one, inserted by Dicks, to fund the Puget Sound Navy Museum to the tune of $1 million (evidently a key national security priority).

More objectionable still is the one, worth $1 million, inserted by Rep. Brian Baird, together with four colleagues from Oregon, to fund the Northwest Manufacturing Initiative. It is no doubt a great program, but still one that relates to keeping jobs in Oregon (not national defense per se) -- and that raises questions about why it's in a defense bill.

Typically, those who sponsor such earmarks defend them on the basis that legislators from a particular area know better than D.C. bureaucrats how to spend money within their home regions -- and that moving money back home to worthy programs must be done, by any method available. Certainly, that seems to be the attitude of Rep. David Wu of Oregon, a chief backer of federal funding via earmarks to the Northwest Manufacturing Initiative. Last year, he went to bat to save a $2.5 million earmark benefiting the program, facing off against Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, an enemy of earmark enthusiasts, who took issue with the inclusion of that earmark not simply because it looks insufficiently defense-related, but also because the insertion of earmarks like it into defense spending bills runs the risk of taking money away from real defense priorities.

Flake, of course, has a point. While many Americans would like to see defense spending, overall, decreased (especially given the high cost of the Iraq war), it is beyond doubt that most would also agree that where defense money is spent, it should be directed to such items as body armor, not job retention.

Of course, Flake has bigger and better targets than those and the Pacific Northwest legislators backing them. The delegations of West Virginia and Alaska are widely regarded by fiscal watchdogs as among the worst in the country, with members from those states frequently being cited as "Porkers of the Month" by Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the leading anti-earmark groups.

Nonetheless, with the deficit for the 2007 budget year that ended Sept. 30 at $162.8 billion, and many voters concerned about out-of-control government spending, that is little excuse for federal money being shuttled to asparagus production schemes and Oregon job-saving initiatives. That is moreover the case with voters increasingly aware of the connection between earmarks and corruption; 42 percent of them last year told CNN exit pollsters that corruption and ethics were "extremely important" to them in casting their ballots.

Given both points, before Evergreen State legislators next have the opportunity to visit the trough, they should think carefully about the message it sends to voters. But don't count on them doing so: Bringing home the bacon still looks like a tried and tested campaign strategy to most of the porkers -- and it's a popular pastime in the other Washington.

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