Bringing home the bacon

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The part-time job of the nation’s lawmakers is to argue over what might or might not be good for America. Their full-time job is to ensure that, however they decide those questions, it helps them win re-election.

The most efficient way of ensuring their political future is to line the clouds over their home states with silver and to make sure their constituents are well-fed on pork.

While looting the national treasury for favorite projects is as old as Congress itself, the business of greasing the electorate is particularly disgusting when the federal deficit is testing the nation’s ability to stay afloat. The federal government’s budget deficit this year will likely be close to $400 billion. While that might not be a record in terms of percentage, it is enough to give us a borderline case of trichinosis, if that is possible.

For the last 15 years, Citizens Against Government Waste has listed in its “Pig Book” those in Congress who are the major offenders in the annual pork-barrel contest. To qualify for listing, the projects must meet one of the CAGW criteria, including being requested by only one chamber of Congress; not specifically authorized; not competitively awarded; not requested by the president; greatly exceeding the president’s budget request; not the subject of congressional hearings, and serving only one district. It is an admirable, although obviously futile, effort to slow the gluttony.

Every year, Congress seems to pork out at record levels despite the group’s good work to focus attention on the growing corpulence. In fiscal 2005, for instance, the waste watchers found 13,997 projects stuffed into 13 appropriations bills, a 31 percent increase over last year.

These projects cost $27.3 billion, 19 percent more than the previous year’s $22.9 billion, startling when one considers the rate of increase is higher than even that for health care. In fact, the CAGW states, the total cost of the other white meat adds up to $212 billion since 1991.

In defense of the lawmakers, if one wishes to defend them, the top three increases between this year and last included homeland security, an expense that until recently wasn’t even measured. The other two areas of accelerated “porking” were energy and water, and labor and health and human services.

No. 1 in pork per capita is Alaska (about $985). It received $645.5 million for the favorite home-state projects of its congressional delegation, led by longtime Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, recipient of the CAGW Hogzilla Award for his efforts.

While Hawaii wasn’t far behind at third (the District of Columbia, where the government is headquartered, was actually second in per-capita pork, even without voting congressional representation), with $573.9 million, its greater population kept the per capita to about half of Alaska’s.

Unsurprisingly, West Virginia, sporting one of the champion porkers of all time, the long-serving Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, was fourth in the annual review. It received $398.6 million. That earned Mr. Byrd the CAGW’s “Flipping the Byrd at the Taxpayer Award.” Actually, at one time there was speculation Byrd’s goal was to move most of the government, probably including the White House, to his home state.

Among the more blatant examples of pork barreling this year were $1.7 million for the International Fertilizer Development Association; $1.4 million for various halls of fame like the Paper Industry Hall and the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall; $2 million to buy back the USS Sequoia presidential yacht; $8.2 million for a nondenominational chapel at Fort Lewis, Wash; $6.3 million for wood utilization research; and the almost certainly crucial award of $25,000 to a Nevada county school district to develop a curriculum to study mariachi music.

There could be only one thing more pressing than the need for most of the examples of profligate spending on behalf of the few. That, of course, is the re-election of those members of Congress responsible for each of the expenditures.

But then, why were they elected if not to serve up as much pork as possible for their constituents?

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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