Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Need proof of how pork-addicted Congress has become? Consider this: Some in the Senate are looking for ways to shift funds from the troops in Iraq to some of their favorite pet projects.

At risk is the $94.4 supplemental spending bill President Bush requested from Congress to provide $92 billion for hurricane relief and the troops in Iraq, and $2.4 billion for avian flu response. Despite his warning that anything more would be vetoed, several senators abused the legislation’s must-pass status to add $14 billion in wasteful pork-barrel goodies for influential constituents, labor unions and corporations.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, introduced several amendments to strip these earmarks, but despite some close votes, all but one lost.

Unable to control their colleagues, 35 senators signed a letter promising to support a veto, and the House of Representatives’ leadership announced it would refuse to accept any supplemental exceeding the $94.4 billion target. Despite these positive signs in favor of spending restraint, some in the Senate want to concoct a face-saving deal with the president to sustain these wasteful proposals. Their plan: Shortchange the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to preserve most of the pork.

In effect, the Senate is using the desperate situation confronting our troops in Iraq to extort taxpayer-funded favors for their influential constituents and home state businesses.

Included in the Senate’s bill was $700 million to move a railroad line to help develop condos and casinos along Mississippi’s damaged coast, $500 million to repair a shipyard, $4 billion to farmers (on top of the $25 billion they’re already getting this year), $594 million for highways, $1.1 billion for the fishing industry and $20 million for AmeriCorps.

As an aide to Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, described the plan, the conferees could avoid painful choices and still meet the president’s $94.4 billion limit by simply applying an across-the-board cut to the Senate version. With the Senate wanting $108.9 billion, an across-the-board cut of 13.2 percent would be required to bring the Senate’s plan into line with the president’s target.

But while such a compromise may appear reasonable, in fact it would cost the troops substantially and would preserve every one of the wasteful spending and corporate welfare projects now in the bill (at, admittedly, 87 percent of their initial levels).

To achieve this across-the-board cut to reduce the Senate’s proposal to the White House limit of $94.4 billion, the president’s proposals for the Iraq and Afghanistan efforts would have to be cut $9.6 billion, Katrina relief by $2.6 billion and avian flu response by $304 million. In turn, these “savings” could be redeployed to provide $608 million to facilitate a casino/condo-based redevelopment scheme in Mississippi, $3.4 billion in additional farm subsidies, $967 million for fisheries assistance, $516 million in unrelated highway aid, and even $17 million for AmeriCorps.

As conferees begin negotiating to close the $17 billion gap between the House and Senate versions (or $14.5 billion gap between the Senate and president), many may see this across-the-board scheme as a path of least resistance. If so, Congress will do a grave disservice to our antiterrorism efforts and Gulf state’s rebuilding to spend $12.5 billion on wasteful earmarks and corporate welfare.

To discourage this outcome, the House and the president must emphasize that spending restraint involves more than simply meeting a numerical target: Rather, the bill will be measured by what it funds and what it does not. To this end, the president must clarify his veto message and make it clear phony compromises that preserve waste are as unacceptable as excess spending.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation and co-author of the book “Getting America Right.”

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