- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. | It’s early on a Monday in north Alabama’s “space city,” and Sen. Richard C. Shelby is bashing Washington at a packed town-hall meeting in the cavernous U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

“We’re spending a lot of money that we don’t have,” the veteran Republican tells hundreds of business leaders, many nodding in agreement over bacon and eggs.

Lost in the moment is this irony: Mr. Shelby’s anti-spending message is being delivered in a government-built museum to which he frequently steers public money. The admiring crowd is made up of people whose livelihood depends on federal aerospace programs that drive the local economy. And the main point of Mr. Shelby’s speech is to assure them he is fighting to stop NASA budget cuts and keep the spigot in Washington flowing.

The scene helps explain why Washington can’t control its spending. Lawmakers and their voters usually love the federal money that flows into their communities, even though they are wary of spending in the abstract and balk at tax increases.

“I guess it’s human nature,” said Bubba Roby, a Huntsville banker who specializes in getting loans to local businesses, most of them doing work with the government. “Everybody wants to see their tax dollars come back home but they don’t want to see it going other places.”

Few politicians have played to this attitude better than Mr. Shelby and his neighboring-state colleague, Thad Cochran of Mississippi. As leading Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the two Southerners have built their careers sending federal money back home. They stand out as big-spending dinosaurs compared with a new breed of conservatives who disdain Washington money on principle.

Plenty of Democrats bring home the bacon with similar vigor, but none has been simultaneously so critical of government spending.

Mr. Cochran, while calling Democratic budgets “dangerous,” has grabbed more than $2.5 billion in earmarks over the past three years, according to the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. That’s more than any other member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, and it’s almost as much as the $2.8 billion that Mississippi is receiving from President Obama’s much-criticized economic stimulus package. Mr. Shelby, who is coasting to re-election in November, isn’t far behind with about $1 billion over the past three years.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said parochial spending is a major obstacle to controlling the deficit. To make significant cuts, she said, nearly everyone will have to sacrifice something. But few will be willing to do so when some states are getting extra goodies because of insider politics.

“Before you can convince someone that their taxes are going to go up or their Medicare payments are going to go down, you have to convince them that the government is budgeting wisely,” she said.

When pressed, Mr. Shelby and Mr. Cochran declined to identify home-state programs they would cut. They argue that they are simply fighting for their states’ fair share and exercising Congress’ duty to decide where money goes, not driving up overall spending levels.

Critics such as Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who has sworn off earmarks, say the country can no longer afford such parochial pressures. “You can’t ask for hundreds of millions of dollars every year and then expect people to take you seriously about fixing the system,” he said. “We have to focus on getting the federal government out of things, not into things.”

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