Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Senate will soon consider legislation with an impressive-sounding name — Advancing America’s Priorities Act. But the bill being pushed by Democratic leaders includes lots of lawmakers’ pet priorities, such as a commission on the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the War of 1812, $1.5 billion for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and $5 million for a museum in Poland.

The legislation lumps nearly 40 separate bills into one and authorizes numerous “earmarks,” the targeted spending for projects that Democrats often ridiculed as pork-barrel when they swept into power 18 months ago.

Critics are even more concerned about the way all this spending might be approved. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is threatening to use a parliamentary tactic known as “filling the tree,” which would preclude amendments and make it difficult for lawmakers and the White House to block projects they consider wasteful.

The bill is an example of government’s inclination “to throw money and create a credit card and charge it to our kids,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who is leading efforts to thwart a vote on the legislation.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Democrats need to consider such a tactic to counter Mr. Coburn’s “unprecedented obstructionism” in placing a hold on many of the individual bills so they could not be rushed through the Senate.

Mr. Manley said the bills have been debated and approved by the House and have been considered by the relevant Senate committees. Bills that passed the House received the support of an average of 379 members, he said.

The two sides are headed for a legislative showdown as early as Saturday. As leaders in both parties plotted strategy, Mr. Coburn published a 72-page summary of all the spending he either opposes or wants to offset by cuts elsewhere.

The laundry list of spending totals more than $11 billion.

Mr. Coburn said his motive has been to force transparency in the way Congress spends money and allow for lawmakers to have vigorous debate on the merits of such spending.

One of the biggest items in the legislation is $1.5 billion for Washington’s Metrorail system, which the conservative Heritage Foundation calls the “biggest earmark in history.” The think tank notes that the project is seven times more expensive than the so-called “bridge to nowhere” that became a symbol of excessive spending in the last Republican-led Congress.

Other earmarks listed in the bill include $24 million for the United Nations and $5 million for a museum in Poland. The legislation also reauthorizes a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that spent $51 million last year on 95 earmarks.

The names of many of the bills that were merged into the omnibus legislation have a “mom and the American flag” sentiment to them. In fact, the title of one of the bills is Mothers Act, and another is called the “Star-Spangled Banner” and War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission Act. That may make it harder for some Republicans to vote against it.

“Senator Reid has packed this bill with things Republicans will have difficulty opposing,” Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican ally of Mr. Coburn from South Carolina, said Wednesday. Mr. Manley agreed, saying the bills had “broad bipartisan support” and at least one Republican co-sponsor.

The bills that Mr. Reid has assembled in his package include:

The Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, which would authorize $100 million over the next five years. Mr. Coburn cited official comments by the Health and Human Services Department: “The NIH already has the authority to carry out all the activities of the bill (except, perhaps, designating entities in honor of Christopher and Dana Reeve)”.

The Ocean and Coastal Exploration Act ($872 million over eight years) and the Coastal and Ocean Observation Act ($800 million over five years). Mr. Coburn said that Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, has refused to discuss spending offsets to pay for these programs.

The Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act ($183 million in fiscal 2009 and such sums as necessary for 2010 to 2013). Noting that the “White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth identified 12 federal agencies that fund over 300 programs that assist local communities in serving disadvantaged youth in some capacity,” Mr. Coburn considered the program duplicative.

The Support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews Act, which authorized a $5 million appropriation as an earmark for a museum in a foreign country.

The Torture Victims Relief Reauthorization Act ($97 million over five years), including a $24 million earmark for the United Nations, which, according to U.N. auditors, has a 43 percent rate of fraud in its procurement contracts.

The ALS Registry Act (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) ($75 million over five years). Mr. Coburn cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report: “Putting patients in contact with medical researchers is a worthwhile goal, but a registry is not the means to accomplish it.”

The National Capital Transportation Amendments Act ($1.5 billion over 10 years). Citing several newspaper accounts detailing “long-standing mismanagement” at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Mr. Coburn decried the lack of accountability and resented the fact that Metro received $140 million in 2006 to provide rail passes for federal employees. “Why should every other taxpayer in the country pay for the rail transportation of the best-paid people in the country, the federal work force?” Mr. Coburn asked on the Senate floor.

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