- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

The shocking growth in pork-barrel spending that hit a new high in this month’s year-end, $388 billion omnibus funding bill has spurred calls for budget reform. But don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

President Bush will hold his nose and sign this outrageously wasteful, 14-pound, pork-stuffed bill anyway. Why? Because it reduces discretionary spending increases overall to about 4 percent. If Pentagon and homeland defense spending is removed, the rate of spending growth is cut to about 1 percent. (This does not include so-called “emergency” funding for Afghanistan, Iraq and hurricane damage assistance that are outside the spending caps).

Even so, the growing number of special interest, earmarked provisions slipped into the bill by lawmakers — money the White House does not want and did not ask for — is especially disturbing to spending critics who have watched the pork-barrel scandal worsen year after year.

Budget watchers say this year’s 11,000-12,000 earmark items that will cost taxpayers an added $15.8 billion are the most ever in a single bill, several thousand provisions more than earlier appropriations bills passed in the last several years. Lawmakers defend the special projects they routinely insert into a spending process that has become their political slush fund drawn from the Treasury to help them win re-election.

Here’s a few examples:

• $100,000 for the High Falls Film Festival, Rochester, N. Y.

• $35,000 for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

• $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, Tenn.

• $250,000 for the Alaska Statehood Celebration, University of Alaska.

• $25,000 to develop a curriculum to study mariachi music in the Clark County School District in Nevada.

• $97,000 for the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine.

• $200,000 for the Aviation Hall of Fame.

• $200,000 for the Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum, Greenville, Tex.

$250,000 for “traffic calming” in Windermere, Fla.

• $921,000 for hardwood tree improvement and regeneration in Indiana.

• $3 million for the Center for Grape Genetics, Geneva, N.Y.

• $500,000 for Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City.

• $150,000 for the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, Columbus, Ga.

• $100,000 for the Punxsutawney (Groundhog) Weather Museum in Pennsylvania.

The list goes on and on, thousands of low-priority or, more to the point, no-priority, spending that needlessly fattens the federal budget, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill — often to benefit wealthy special interests from the lumber industry to wine producers to upper-income communities like Bakersfield, Calif., which gets $280,000 for “sidewaks, street furniture and facade improvements.”

What justifies billing taxpayers for $350,000 for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland? Why can’t the immensely rich music industry pay for this out of the billions they have made over the years off rock ‘n’ roll sales?

Congress tried to control its pork-barrel spending appetites by passing a line-item presidential veto that empowered the president to eliminate these back-pocket spending provisions while signing the rest of the money bills into law. The Supreme Court, however, ruled against it, saying that it was an unconstitutional ursurpation of Congress’ power of the purse. Only Congress can decide how public funds are spent. The president can either accept their decisions or veto them.

Mr. Bush has called for budget reform, including another try for a line-item veto, one that would pass constitutional muster, but it seems unlikely Congress will try again on this score.

A better approach might be budget-making reforms that forbid individual members of Congress from inserting earmarked spending provisions on their own, unless they are passed by a roll call vote in the appropriations committee and then, individually, by the full House and Senate.

Another approach could require that all earmarked items be broken out of the appropriations bill and sent to the president as individual bills he could accept or veto — effectively giving him a line-item veto that Congress, if it chooses, could vote to override. Essentially a divide-and-conquer strategy.

All this said, there are larger fiscal trends at work in a budget-making process that now spends $2.4 trillion a year. The biggest is that this year’s omnibus bill, swollen as it is with fat, does rein in spending somewhat. Even spending critics say so.

“This year’s appropriations are 41/2 percent higher than last year and, sadly, this represents substantial progress,” says Brian Riedl, chief budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation. The pending bill essentially freezes overall discretionary spending. “I’ll have to give credit where credit is due: freezing nondefense discretionary programs is better than the large increases they’ve received in recent years,” Mr. Riedl told me.

But billions of dollars in wasteful, unworkable programs remain to be cut or, better yet, eliminated altogether. And that may be what Mr. Bush, now that he has won a second term, plans for next year’s budget.

White House budget officials tell me they are looking at much deeper spending cuts in a broad range of agencies and programs in the fiscal 2006 budget. Mr. Bush campaigned on restraining spending in the next four years to cut the deficit in half. And officials say it is a promise he plans to keep.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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