- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

Grab your wallets and lock up your valuables, because Congress is running at full throttle. With elections just six months away, lawmakers are spending money like a carnivore at a steakhouse.
Senior staff members on congressional committees, the unelected people who write the bills and do most of the legislative work, tell me that wasteful, zero-priority, pork barrel spending is going to be higher than ever this year.
Much of this spending is in the form of special earmarked provisions that are quietly and namelessly slipped into regular appropriations bills. In most cases, no one in the government has formally requested money for these projects, nor have the funds been given any scrutiny by the committees who vote out the bills.
Last year alone, lawmakers stuffed 7,803 earmarked items into House and Senate money bills, totaling about $15 billion. Among them:
$50,000 for a tattoo removal program in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.
$500,000 to build a bike trail at North Dakota's Fort Union Trading Post.
$2 million for the Center on Obesity at West Virginia University.
$270,000 to fight the "Goth culture" in Blue Springs, Mo.
$150,000 for therapeutic horseback riding in Apple Valley, Calif.
$500,000 to save the Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse.
$4 million for Washington State's dolphin replacement project.
And on and on it goes. A million dollars to find out whether buses and trains can run on soybeans; $300,000 to pull weeds out of the Navidad and Lavaca rivers; and $5 million to Hawaii, Alaska and Massachusetts to "study the common roots of their 19th-century whaling heritage."
Frequently, these provisions tap into programs intended to help low-income people to bankroll projects sought by special interests who are far from poor.
The Department Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program was set up in the 1970s to help depressed communities, letting local officials decide how to spend the money.
But last year's HUD bill contained 256 earmarks, including $200,000 to restore the Lao Theater in Wailuku Town, Hawaii, $100,000 for the Alabama Quail Trail, and $250,000 to refurbish the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York.
Now, don't get me wrong. Horseback riding is therapeutic for many people. Biking is healthy, too. Certainly obesity is a serious problem. But should hard-pressed federal taxpayers be paying for these things?
How is it possible that lawmakers could think "that spending more than a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars to help a prosperous Kansas City suburb confront an infestation of alienated teen-agers dressed in black and posing as spawns of Nosferatu is an essential responsibility of the national government?" asks Heritage Foundation budget analyst Ron Utt in a recent study on pork.
"More curious is how Congress could believe this at a time when the government is confronting an international terrorist assault that has already murdered more than 3,000 Americans," he adds.
White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels has been battling pork barrel spending and other excessive add-ons to appropriations bills. At a news conference in February to discuss President Bush's budget, Mr. Daniels said the age-old practice of unreviewed, unrequested earmarked spending "has gotten out of hand" and that Congress had to curb "its appetite for these programs."
But congressional appropriators considered Mr. Daniels' remarks to be out of bounds. House Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. (Bill) Young, Florida Republican, told him not to stick his nose where it doesn't belong.
"The power of the purse resides solely with Congress. Unless the Constitution is amended, Congress will continue to exercise its discretion over federal funds for purposes we deem appropriate," he bluntly lectured Mr. Daniels in a letter last February.
True, none of these projects has been requested by their respective agencies in the executive branch. But Mr. Young told Mr. Daniels that lawmakers who secretly insert these earmarked items into spending bills "know the needs of their districts better than civil servants working in Washington."
The administration came charging into office last year determined to reduce the rise in annual federal spending, running about 8 percent a year, to 4 percent. It made some progress in certain areas, but the spending floodgates were opened again when the terrorists struck. Pentagon and homeland defense spending surged, among other related and unrelated programs. The economic slump slashed tax revenues, and the deficits reappeared.
Spending will probably grow by 8 percent or more this year and at least that in the 2003 fiscal year, unless the administration can block or slow down Congress' election-year vote-buying spree.
Lawmakers are not solely to blame. Special interests, states and localities pay fat-cat lobbying firms hefty fees to get pet projects inserted into money bills. Mr. Utt notes that a typical lobbying firm boasts on its Web site that "more than half our firm's work is comprised of this activity, and our track record is strong."
With the nation at war and with so many other pressing priorities, not to mention the deficits, someone needs to tell the spenders that this is no time for business as usual. Mr. Daniels predicts the president will veto the first pork-stuffed appropriations bill that reaches his desk. Maybe that's when Congress will get the message.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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