Beyond the Beltway

By - Jan 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Donald Kaul

Remember “earmarks”? They’re those awful things Democrats kept railing against during the recent election, shabby political deals made “in the dark of night” that funneled taxpayers’ money into the districts of powerful politicians.

Perhaps the worst of a bad breed, you’ll recall, was the infamous $200 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. (Actually, it was to a small island where 50 people lived, which technically may not be “nowhere” but you certainly can see it from there.) Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was the project’s godfather and he was insulted – positively outraged – that anyone would find fault with spending $4 million per person on a bridge in his state.

The practice of attaching these earmarks, often anonymously, onto legislation without discussion of their individual merits, simply as a favor to the legislator involved, had gotten entirely out of hand, said the Democrats. Under Republican rule, the cost of earmarks had ballooned to $64 billion a year and Democrats were going to do something about them; yes they were.

Now that they are about to take control of the appropriations machinery, however, the Democrats have morphed into Roseanne Roseannadana. “Never mind,” is their battle cry.

Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the 82-year-old Democrat who is taking over as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, the largest pool of discretionary spending available for earmarking, said that he didn’t contemplate any “monumental changes” in the system.
He said that he’d met with Sen. Stevens, the current defense appropriations chair, before the election and they’d come to an agreement.

“We pledged to each other that no matter what happens, we will continue with our tested system of bipartisanship and we’ve been doing this for the past 25 years, and it’s worked.”

Yes it has, particularly for Alaska and Hawaii. Those two states get more bucks per person in earmarks than any other state. Hawaii gets about $750 per resident per year, Alaska $1,677.

The way the system works is that the majority party gets 60 percent of the booty for its projects while the minority settles for 40 percent. Now that the Democrats have become the majority, is it really fair to expect them to give up their turn at the public trough?

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, set to become chairwoman of the transportation subcommittee. She, incidentally, threatened her colleagues with reprisal if they voted against Stevens’ bridge. Who said there’s no bipartisanship in Washington?

These projects, after all, are a way of rewarding political contributors and convincing working stiffs that you have their best interests at heart. Some of them are even worthwhile. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, says he is an unabashed supporter of earmarks, which he prefers to call “Congressional directed funding.”

He claims that 14 years ago he started directing millions of dollars out of the defense budget into breast cancer research.
“Now, was that bad?” he asked The New York Times reporter interviewing him on the subject.

He should have asked me. Yes, it’s bad. Not because the project isn’t worthwhile but because it is a violation of the integrity of the budget procedure. There’s no legitimate defense reason for the Defense Department to fund breast cancer research. If a project, however noble, cannot get funded on its own merits, it should die. Getting away from that principle leads inevitably to the Bridge to Nowhere.

My personal favorite examples of the art of the earmark is the work of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, who is slated to become the chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee.

As a result of his appropriations magic over the years, his state now is home to the Coast Guard’s Operations System Center, its National Vessel Movement Center and (soon) its National Maritime Center. If the state only had a coast, it would be all set. And now that Senator Byrd is back in charge, maybe it will get one. VS

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