Rumors flew as Congress rushed to construct its omnibus spending bill in December. One was that to avoid a presidential veto, all earmarks-including pork-barrel projects-would be dropped. It didn't happen. Congressional leadership cut other programs instead, and three months into the new fiscal year, the President signed off.
The measure was a $555 billion monster made up of 11 appropriations bills, including Transportation-HUD (THUD), which provides for annual highway spending beyond that guaranteed by SAFETEA-LU, the current highway act. This year the Department of Transportation gets $105.6 billion, up $7.1 billion from 2007.
Of that, $40.2 billion (up $1.25 billion from '07) goes into highway infrastructure, and $1 billion (a 25% increase) is added for bridge repair. Another $195 million goes to reconstruct Minnesota's collapsed I-35W bridge.
So between SAFETEA-LU and THUD, 2008 bridge repair funds are over $3 billion. That's progress, but far short of the $9.4 billion a year the American Society of Civil Engineers says are needed to upgrade our bridge system over the next 20 years.
And what about the earmarks? For the first time, by law, members of both houses were supposed to identify themselves as sponsors of individual projects. Many did, but many others found a loophole and refused.
There were some 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus bill. The Citizens Against Government Waste watchdog group says those projects will cost $7.5 billion, down significantly from the last fiscal budget. Why? Maybe partly due to the new identification law-but probably more because last time around, some Congressmen got caught in secret earmark scandals. One went to jail, two others resigned and others underwent investigation.
But pork still prevails in the new omnibus bill. Earmark projects take up 696 pages of the printed document-a fifth of its total pages. Examples:
- $250,000: wine and culinary center - Washington state.
- $9 million: "rural domestic preparedness" - Kentucky.
- $100,000: fashion district signage - Los Angeles
- $400,000: improve bicycle trails - Indiana
- $700,000: bike and walk trails - Minnesota
- $1.312 million: safety project on environmental effects of dust suppression chemicals on federal lands and highways - Missouri
There's an earmark for a prison museum, and one for a sailing school. Also notable: the watchdog group named Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) "Porker of the Month" for adding a $300,000 to THUD to build a comfort station for the Springfield Arts Council.
And there are our two friends from Alaska, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, Republicans who have both run afoul of federal investigators. Stevens got $7.5 million for "transportation infrastructure projects throughout rural Alaska" earmarked into THUD. Hopefully those will be defined in more detail before construction starts.
But the pair scored biggest by planting a $20 million earmark for an ice-breaking "ferry to nowhere" into the defense spending bill passed prior to the omnibus bill. Critics say it has nothing to do with defense, and a lot to do with land development.
In the end, highways and bridges got a little better deal this year than last, and the pork damage wasn't quite as bad.
In fact, most earmarks do some good for someone somewhere. But in too many cases that's the problem; the money is supposed to go to the common good-not to the individual. Congress has violated-and lost-the public trust.
Now Congress should make earmark sponsorships truly transparent to stop the bad actors. According to watchdogs, Republicans pushed for that transparency last year, but Democratic leaders watered the law down.
Citizens Against Government Waste www.ccagw.org provides insights into the pork system, and a platform to participate in the movement to change it. One of its insights: lifetime ratings of presidential candidates who serve or have served in Congress. The ratings, based on voting records, range from "taxpayer hero" to "hostile."
Some of them may surprise you, and you might want to consider them when picking your candidate.
E-mail Doug Condra at [email protected], or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.