Washingtons animal farm

Earmarks are much less about responsibly subsidizing local projects and more about serving.

by Darren Bernard

Four years before he published ì1984,” George Orwell wrote a short book with similar overtones called ìAnimal Farm.” The story is ostensibly about a group of farm animals that become fed up with their treatment and decide to overthrow the ruling farmer. The animals are roused with slogans of equality and liberty, but slowly come to find that the pigs who led the revolt are just as tyrannical and corrupt. The pigs befriend neighboring farmers, learn to play cards and walk on two feet; in the end, the other farm animals can no longer tell pig from man.

The story was originally a critique of the Soviet societies, but the parable is fast becoming an analogy for ever-worse habits in Washington. Once-valiant priorities have given way to political pandering. The party with the power to spark change, wonít.

In the beginning, the pigs had an enviable vision for the farm. When Republicans finally retook Congress in 1994, conservative leaders promised to cut spending, oppose socialized medicine and make welfare into something more than a pot of blank checks. Republicans ran under the motto, ìContract with America,” screamed about fiscal responsibility and set the path for the eventual Washington takeover.

But now the pigs look like men. Republicans have gotten lazy ó and spendthrift. Enjoying the spoils of a near-total monopoly of power in Washington, President George W. Bush and conservative lawmakers have casually passed enormous Medicare acts, transportation bills and education laws. The pig parallel is particularly appropriate because the last decadeís explosion of pork projects has been in a GOP-controlled House. As Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., recently said of the rightís fiscal irresponsibility, ìRepublicans donít even pretend anymore.”

This hasnít always been the case. Lawmakersí chic infatuation with high-priced earmarks ó line item additions to spending bills for pork projects ó is not something that was part of the rightís original plan. President Ronald Reagan vetoed a spending bill in 1987 because it had a mere 157 earmarks, and he made a big deal of Congressí waste. Last year, Bush threatened to veto the transportation bill if it had a price above $256 billion. He later signed it at $286 billion ó with $24 billion set aside for some 6,000 earmarks. To justify the mushrooming fat, Senators and House members like to say most earmarks are legitimate, job-creating federal investments in infrastructure and education. This must be why they often are added in secret to enormous spending bills only hours before being voted on.

Democrats also have had the tenacity to claim that pork spending always has been a lucrative business in Washington. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ó the same man who repeatedly has bemoaned the ìcosts of Republican corruption” ó said last month, ìThereís nothing basically wrong with earmarks. Theyíve been going on since we were a country.”

Perhaps President Thomas Jefferson managed to slip a couple of projects past Congress for nice walking paths near Monticello, but pork projects have never existed in the magnitude they do today. Citizens Against Government Waste reports Congress got through 1,318 pork projects at a cost of $7.8 billion in 1994, up from less than 1,000 in 1991 and 1992. By 2005, those numbers had jumped to 13,997 projects for $27.3 billion.

While Alaska and West Virginia lead the pack for earmarked projects, Minnesota has mostly bucked the trend. Traditionally, the Gopher State has been one of the least pork-laden in the country, ranking an impressive 46th last year in per capita waste. Local House Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, has secured millions of dollars in recent years for arguably legitimate projects like the Hiawatha light rail line and cemetery enhancements at Fort Snelling. Sabo is one of many House members who openly defends the earmarking process, saying, ìYou either be looking out for your state and your district, or (the money is) going to go elsewhere.”

Whether federal dollars should be used to pay for infrastructure improvements is a valid debate ó one that probably splits along party lines. But flagrant pork projects ó along with their weak rationalizations ó are abetted by members of both parties.

Lawmakers know and privately admit that earmarks are much less about responsibly subsidizing state and local projects and more about dumping taxpayer money on constituents, lobbyists and campaign contributors. No one can justify $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Iowa, $800,000 for a Pennsylvania outhouse or $900,000 for Washington, D.C.ís Shakespeare Theater. For being so concerned about the $319 billion budget deficit, lawmakers are oddly comfortable with shameless waste.

The only good news for proponents of greater fiscal responsibility is that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have spent the last week blitzing the media with plans to bring a measure of accountability to the out-of-control Congress. There are plenty of easy alternatives to the line-item veto for curbing earmarking, and Republicans would have a lot to gain in opposing the practice. The question is whether, come the fall elections, the farm animals will be able to tell pig from man.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]