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LAMBRO: Dr. No strikes again

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COMMENTARY:

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid tried to shove an $11.3 billion pork-barrel bill past the Republicans last week but was gunned down by Oklahoman Tom Coburn and 39 of his friends.

It was an embarrassing defeat for Mr. Reid, who never met a spending bill he didn't like, and a sweet victory for Mr. Coburn and his fellow Republicans who are trying to regain the trust of the GOP's disillusioned base as the party of fiscal discipline.

Mr. Coburn, an obstetrician who still delivers babies, earned his reputation as the Senate's Dr. No for using his senatorial prerogative to place a hold on nearly 80 spending bills, enraging Democrats and a few Republicans who saw one budget-busting bill after another shredded and shelved by the Western waste fighter.

Frustrated by the pile of bills Mr. Coburn was killing, Mr. Reid cobbled dozens of them into one fat-filled, omnibus monstrosity called the Advancing America's Priorities Act and made it the Senate's priority business at midweek.

The measure included $1.5 billion for the District of Columbia's Metro subway line (which comes out to $2,061 per average weekday rider); $12 million to build an orchid-growing greenhouse in Maryland; $4 million for the War of 1812 bicentennial commission; $5 million for a museum in Poland; $17 million to protect people from injuries from chimps and other nonhuman primates; and $24 million more for the United Nations.

To be sure, the bill contained some good things, too: proposals to help victims of paralysis and Lou Gehrig's disease and to fight drug use. These sweeteners were added to make the lard go down a little easier.

But 40 Republicans weren't biting. When the clerk called the roll, the bill fell eight votes short of the 60 votes needed to obtain cloture and move to consideration.

It was a rare victory for budget cutters in the Democratic-run Congress where spending is business as usual. But it showed one senator can make a difference if his party will stand behind him.

Mr. Coburn has fought an often lonely battle, as he placed a "hold" on one bill after another, earning the enmity of senators who call him arrogant, sanctimonious and a lot of other names that can't be printed in this newspaper.

But last week's victory put a very small dent into the endless stream of wasteful spending that slips through Congress, often without a recorded vote.

A Congressional Research Service study, requested by Mr. Coburn, found last month that 94 percent of all bills passed by the Democratic Senate had been approved without debate and without a recorded vote.

The practice, known as "hotlining," is usually reserved for bills that contain no spending and are considered noncontroversial. But in the last two years, the practice has been used and abused to spend big money without taxpayers knowing about it. The cost in the last year and a half: $9 billion.

Budget analyst Brian Riedl over at the Heritage Foundation has been keeping track of the spending in this Congress. Here's some of what he found:

  • $2.4 billion on 10 new jets that the Pentagon says it does not need and won't use.

  • $1.8 million to build a private golf course in Atlanta, Ga.

  • $500,000 for Alaska Airlines to paint a Chinook salmon on a Boeing 737.

  • $2 billion a year for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Conservation Reserve program to pay farmers not to grow crops on their land.

  • $150 million a year to the Advanced Technology Program to subsidize private businesses, with 40 percent going to Fortune 500 companies.

  • Congress creates spending programs with little or no thought about the wasteful duplication it perpetuates, including 342 economic development programs; 130 programs for the disabled; 130 programs for at-risk youth; 90 early-childhood-development programs; and 72 safe-water programs.

    Thus, it comes as no surprise that Congress is spending more than the U.S. Treasury's considerable income, which is now around $2.5 trillion a year courtesy of the beleaguered American taxpayer. The result: The budget deficit will rise to $410 billion this year - and mushroom to $482 billion next year.

    Much of this red ink has to do with the slowdown in the economy, but most has to do with Congress' spending habits - which Tom Coburn is trying to curb.

    No branch of government is held in more disrepute than Congress. The Gallup Poll reported last month that its approval score fell to a record low of 14 percent last month. And Mr. Reid's politics-as-usual pork bill is the main reason.

    Fortunately, the American people deal in priorities. Right now, the economy and the cost of oil and gas are No. 1 on their list, but not in the halls of Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid refuse to bring up an energy bill because they are afraid a GOP amendment to boost drilling for more oil will pass and prices will fall.

    Instead of staying in Washington and dealing with the energy crisis, the Pelosi/Reid Congress is taking off the entire month of August. At the very least, away from Washington, their wasteful fleecing of America will be put on hold.

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

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