April 6, 2003
Oink!? It’s pork project season
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — Federal pork-barrel spending appears destined to hit a record high this year despite mounting concerns over the deficit, according to a federal watchdog group.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, won’t reveal the amount of earmarked projects identified as pork until the Wednesday release of the group’s “pig book” survey of wasteful spending.
But Schatz acknowledged the total would eclipse the sums of previous years, saying, “It’s more pork and more projects than ever.”
That would imply spending in excess of the $20.1 billion the group identified as unneeded and excessive last year.
Schatz argued that Congress should have shown restraint in larding spending bills with pork, given the rising federal budget deficit and costs of the war with Iraq.
“One would hope or think that those two major problems or obstacles would have influenced the outcome but apparently members ignored that,” he said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers seeking projects for their districts face a looming Friday deadline to deliver their wish lists to several panels that will review requests for the upcoming year. That launches a process known as earmarking whereby legislators lobby the all-powerful spending committees to embed their pet projects in the bills that control the outflow of dollars from the federal treasury.
Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, set the Friday deadline for projects under his jurisdiction. Several other similar panels will observe the same timetable.
While critics such as Schatz say earmarks are wasteful and unfair, many lawmakers defend them as a legitimate way to help their districts or states.
Schatz’s organization has been railing against pork since 1991, without obvious success. Despite his opposition and that of other critics, including White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels, the amount of earmarks just keeps growing.
Part of the reason may be that the majority of lawmakers support earmarking, largely because it benefits their constituents.
“In the great scheme of things, I think the money spent on earmarks is generally well-spent,” Regula said. “I’ve got to tell you, the people in the district love them.”
Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, views earmarks as a fundamentally sound practice even though they can be abused.
“It’s members reacting to their constituency, so I think in general they are a good thing to do,” he said.
“I always felt I was put here to vote but I was also put here to return some dollars back” to the district, he added.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, also supports them, a reflection of the fact that earmarking is a bipartisan activity engaged in by members of the minority party, too.
Sometimes earmarks are abused, as when a lawmaker puts in money for a weapons system that the Pentagon doesn’t want, he said.
But Brown said earmarks for medical or educational projects are a way of “carrying out the public purposes of education and health care.”
Those comments underscore a basic political reality — that pork often is considered essential for a politician’s re-election.
After Congress gave final approval earlier this year to a $397 billion omnibus spending bill, congressional staffers began cranking out announcements of the projects their bosses had managed to secure for constituents.
Among the thousands of earmarks in that bill were $500,000 for exhibits and education programs at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, $500,000 for a nursing study at the University of Akron and $100,000 for an advanced respiratory medicine project at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., just to name a few.
Those boastful press releases are the culmination of a process that begins months earlier, and is under way now.
It starts when individual congressmen and senators receive requests for federal funds for projects in their districts or states. The requests come from local governments and public or private organizations. Lawmakers decide which merit federal assistance and send a wish list to the appropriators.
“We go through a very elaborate process in our office determining what we think are our priorities” for the state, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Cedarville, said in describing his process for requesting earmarks.
It is the appropriations committees that put earmarks into spending bills. Or, more precisely, it is the 13 subcommittees comprising both the Senate and House appropriations committees that do it. Each subcommittee funds a different part of government.
The requests for projects go to the relevant subcommittees and specifically to their chairmen, who decide which requests will end up as earmarks in a bill. Staff recommendations can be crucial.
In recognition of their extraordinary influence over spending, the subcommittee chairmen are known as cardinals after high-ranking officials in the Catholic Church. These chairmen, including Regula in the House and DeWine in the Senate, have great leeway in crafting their spending bills.
Not surprisingly, preference in the award of earmarks goes to requests from congressional leaders, committee chairman and lawmakers with the most seniority.
But it is the cardinals, along with the two chairmen of the full appropriations committees, who make the decisions.
Some cardinals can command more earmarks than others.
When Regula previously was chairman of the Interior Subcommittee, which finances the national park system, he had only limited opportunities to direct funding to congressional districts.
But every congressional district can benefit from projects related to schools, hospitals, job-training programs and other projects.
“As I’ve acquired more responsibility, I get more earmarks for the 16th District and the state of Ohio,” he said. “I get more because I’m chairman.”
The basic case against earmarks is that they are an unfair, inappropriate or inefficient use of tax dollars.
“We would be better off without any,” said Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., one of the most vocal critics of the practice. “These are political pet projects and they get funded with almost perfect disregard for the merits of the projects.”
Toomey and others say that projects now decided by earmarking should be awarded through the competitive review processes used by government agencies.
Supporters of earmarking counter that legislators know better than bureaucrats what is best for their constituents.
As an example, Ney recalled winning millions of dollars for a highway that was falling apart in his district. The project had been on the drawing boards for years until he stepped in, he said.
Regula pointed out that earmarks account for less than 1 percent of total federal spending.
Schatz said there is no sign the growth in earmarks will end.
“You’ve got a lot of other people in Washington who are pushing to get this money, and very few groups that are fighting against it,” Schatz said.