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Monday, November 27, 2006

Living high on the D.C. hog

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

While perusing my latest colorful and delightful mailing from the Chicago Botanic Garden, I noticed a message from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), prominently displayed.

He said some nice things about all the unseen volunteers, and then got to the heart of the matter: congratulating himself for lagging some federal funding the garden's way. "I am proud that I was able to assist in securing funding to support the Joseph Regenstein Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden."

Even at the Chicago Botanic Garden, congressional earmarks blossom.

The garden's $1.5 million federal harvest was tucked away in the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, which provides billions for highways, bridges and so forth. At the garden, it goes for "infrastructure additions, with repairs and upgrades to sidewalks, bridges and parking lots," as well as upgraded accessibility for the disabled.

Great for the garden, one of my favorite places. No so great if you're from New York or Wyoming. Taxpayers there can reasonably ask why they should have to pay for parking improvements in Glencoe.

Welcome to the wonderful world of earmarks, the secretive process lawmakers use to plant pet vote-producing projects in the federal budget. The most notorious example was a couple of $450 million bridges in Alaska that the state's two senators unsuccessfully tried to corral. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll last spring found that 39 percent of voters thought earmark reform was the single most important thing for Congress to do, which it didn't, which is one reason that Republicans lost control of both houses.

Now voters have called the Democrats to show their cards, and several proposals are knocking around. Generally, the proposals are designed to require more transparency, but each contains some flaws, such as the House proposal that would apply only to "district-oriented earmarks" that directly benefit constituents, thus leaving out contractors and campaign contributors outside of the district.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is co-sponsoring a bill designed to block a lawmaker from requesting an earmark that would benefit a company, group or lobbying firm that employed a member of the lawmaker's family or a former member of the lawmaker's staff.

It's an obvious, although limited, start, but I'm wondering whether the problem lies in Congress, or with us. In strictly economic terms, the lawmakers are doing a service for their clients--the Chicago Botanic Gardens and other worthies of the kind that Durbin proudly announces in his press releases. Who, for example, could argue against $300,000 for a library and technology center at Cristo Rey High School, a model preparatory school serving Pilsen and Little Village?

Durbin credits himself for securing $84 million worth of military projects (some call it pork) for Illinois, including: $12 million for lightweight armor production and other programs at the Rock Island Arsenal; $4.45 million for a titanium processing project in Lockport; $3.25 million for acoustic ballistic detection technology in Barrington; $1.8 million to help small businesses develop high-performance infrared detection materials in Bolingbrook; $1.3 million for airburst ammunition research in Marion; $3 million for a program to help small businesses supply goods and services to the Defense Department in DeKalb; $1.3 million for fuel cell development in Des Plaines; $2 million for improvements to maintenance data systems in Peoria; $1 million for accelerated research into nanotechnology to better detect chemical and biological weapons, Evanston; $2 million for improvements in the Navy supply chain system, Vernon Hills; $2.5 million for an infrared targeting and surveillance system for the Navy, Barrington ... you get the idea.

Can you argue with the need for any of these programs? Even when the specifications for each project may have been written so that only one or a limited number of companies or institutions--which just happen to be in Illinois--can meet them?

Earmarks create jobs and profits, and in the case of universities and military installations, expand empires. Can we expect the beneficiaries to join the outcry against earmarks?

One solution is to give the president line-item veto power, allowing him to kill earmarked projects that he believes don't belong in the budget. But even that has its limitations. Would he risk losing support of a lawmaker in an important vote by striking his pet project?

We like to think that we can solve such problems by passing another law or tightening another regulation. But none of that will work as long as some of us just love that Washington money.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

7 comments:

Tom Condon said...

Dennis
I doubt you were perusing Chicago Botanic Garden. Peruse doesn't mean to scan it means to study. It is my nominee as the most misused word of all time, especially since it is used to describe the OPPOSITE of what it means.

Bryan said...

Way to stay on point tom.

Word choices aside, I agree wholeheartedly with you column, Dennis. Its nice to see someone who is the beneficiary of pork recognize the inherent unfairness of taking money from others to dole out to others. Especially since the main purpose of the pork seems to be to keep those who are in power firmly entrenched through the purchase of favor.

Good work.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed at the real meaning of peruse. I've never heard it used correctly. Also, Bryan, I don't think Dennis is a beneficiary of the pork unless he is an owner of one of the companies getting the military contracts.

Mike N said...

The amount of money spent on earmark legislation has nearly tripled in the last ten years--which coincides with the span of time Congress has been in the control of Republicans, and the bulk of that time Denny Hastert (R-IL) was Speaker of the House--which goes unmentioned in the column. The bridge to nowhere in Alaska? Two Republican senators. Elsewhere in the column it's (D) this and (D) that, but the party is anonymous in this reference. But it's the newly-elected, not-yet-in-charge(D)s who engage in it and are in error for not doing enough to change it.

Anonymous said...

This is the second column in a week that Mr. Byrne mentions only Democrats. Last week it was all about the Dems possibly messing up that smooth running operation in Iraq - this week they're called out about the issue of pork. They just better get things fixed and get it done quickly. After all, weren't the elections already a couple of weeks ago ? What's taking them so lomg ? Guess we might have to wait until they actually take office next month. Funny how the recent election results seem to have awaken the authors desire to see results. Where have you been Dennis ?
For the record there's something called a veto that the President has in his power that could have stopped some of this wasteful spending. The number of times President Bush has used it during his term in office - NONE as in ZERO as in NOT ONCE. Is this the fault of the Democrats too ? Again - where have you been ? Have you called out the President once about running our national debt up to 9 TRILLION dollars ?
No one is saying the Democrats are without fault but the fact is they have not been in power for years now. The transparent motive of Byrnes columns is very clear. Whatever the problem was, is, or will be - it'll be the fault of those Dems.
The fact of the matter is the current mess we have here and abroad is largely the product of a Republican controlled Senate, House, and Presidency. And that is what they call the sad truth.

Anonymous said...

The President doesn't need the line-item veto to eliminate pork. He already has the tools he needs now.

Since pork is written into the conference reports, not the legislative text, it is not legally binding. Yet agencies choose to implement it anyway in order to not anger Congress

All the President has to do is sign an Executive Order telling agencies to ignore the conference reports, and voila, no pork.

Mike N said...

Fellow posters, let's stop belaboring the obvious. Of course Mr. Byrne is a propagandist. Of course he shows complete disregard for the truth, as he sees the need. And of course he's perfectly comfortable with all that, as shown by his willingness to post these unrebutted remarks. Really, it's just whistling in the wind. I, for one, am moving on.