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Monday, March 24, 2008

Something's fishy about pork debate

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

You've got to hand it to Sen. Dick Durbin. When everyone is blasting the "earmarking" of federal funds for favored local projects, the Illinois Democrat defends the practice.

At least he's honest about it, unlike so many others who say they oppose earmarks, while soaking them up like bread dabbed in gravy. Take our favorite son and presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, who says he'll get rid of them—partially at least—yet he basks in the warm gratitude of Illinois interests that are the lucky recipients of the federal loot. Obama, on his campaign Web site, touts his promise to "slash earmarks to no greater than year 2001 levels."


Yet Taxpayers for Common Sense shows him sponsoring $3.3 million in earmarks in 2008. Counting earmarks he sponsored with other senators, the total comes to $98.6 million. On a list of 2007 earmarks that he disclosed was a $1 million request for the University of Chicago Medical Center, where his wife, Michelle, is a vice president. Obama told the Tribune editorial board that the university is "a major constituency of ours," so he didn't think he should "recuse" himself. Still, he said, the earmark is "probably something that we should have been passed on to . . . Durbin."

Undoubtedly, Durbin would have grabbed at the opportunity, and that tweaked the interest of Durbin's Republican rival in the November general election, Steve Sauerberg. In a statement, Sauerberg compared the pass-off to Durbin to "laundering" earmarks for Obama's family. (While Sauerberg condemned the "corrupt earmark culture in Washington," he oddly criticized Durbin for not bringing home enough bacon, i.e. earmarks, for Illinois.)

Durbin declares his love of earmarks to be above board, proudly announcing "every" project he wins for Illinois. "The Senate passed substantial reforms relative to earmarks last year," he notes on his Web site, explaining why he's against more restrictions on earmarks. "Those changes made the process more open and transparent, and they hold senators accountable for every dime of spending they push for. Openness, honesty and transparency are what's needed—not an arbitrary end to the process."

Durbin, on his own and with others, last year sponsored more than $380 million in earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. If you look at Durbin's and Obama's lists, you'll find no Alaskan bridges to nowhere. No museums honoring Woodstock or Lawrence Welk. What you'll find is aid to women's shelters, intersection improvements, senior centers, as well as job-producing contracts to defense contractors, university research centers and the like.

For every project, there's someone who thinks that it is a good idea. Yet earmarks are bad. They distort priorities, for one thing, by shoving through the legislative process individual projects that might not be as worthy as others that are more thoroughly vetted. Generally, earmarks are a zero-sum game because each one does not necessarily increase the budget, but diverts money from some other project. Some earmarks are snuck into legislation without thorough hearings and debate. They are an invitation to corruption, serving as payback to special interests for campaign contributions.

But the more you look into the debate about earmarks, the more it looks like funny business. Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton were among a very few Democrats who recently voted for a one-year freeze on earmarks, putting themselves on record as good guys. Yet, they and everyone else knew that the proposal didn't have a chance of passage, so their votes were mere showboating.

The funny business is bipartisan: President Bush has promised to veto any appropriation that comes to him larded with earmarks, yet his own budget proposal, Democrats say, is full of earmarks.

Despite all the fighting over earmarks, there seems to be little agreement on their exact definition; each expert group of earmark watchers differs on their numbers and costs. So when Obama says he will reduce the level of earmarks to the 2001 level, it could mean, well, who knows?

We all can agree, however, that earmarks have increased despite promises to dramatically reduce them. The $14.8 billion worth of earmarks in 2007 spending bills is less than the record set in 2005. But in 2008, they're back on the way up, at $18.3 billion. Which leads to the question: Are there really enough politicians willing to seriously take on earmarks to do anything about them?


steve sarich said...

Whatever happened to transparency concerning earmarks? Weren't these pork barrel projects suppose to be listed on a website. If I'm not mistaken Senator Obama was one of the 'change' agents that supported this transparency.

If Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain truly wanted to shine the cleansing powers of light on this this fetid mess they'd introduce legistlation that would require all earmarks be published, who initiated them, the cost, interests groups that would benefit from them and if anyone of those interests had made campaign contributions to the Senator asking for the earmark.

A week in the legislative session should be sent aside for full debate on all earmarks and up or down votes taken during regular business hours. No slipping these pork projects into bills in the dead of night. Full, open debate or no money.

Everything that touches cultural issues, i.e. same sex marriage, gay rights, abortion are vetted time and again in primetime and with righteous indignation for those who oppose these issues.

We can't have the same discourse when it comes to spending money on 'bridges to nowhere'?

Old Dawg said...

Excellent article again Mr. Byrne.

Earmarks are despicable given that this country runs a yearly deficit of some $200 billion. The gross federal debt is $9.2 trillion and growing by $2-3 billion PER DAY (in PART due to the Iraq war, but not completely). The interest on the debt for FY06 & FY07 was in excess of $400 billion each year, about $1,300 for every man, woman, and child in America. This is truly disgusting.

But back to earmarks... yes they are important and yes they add up to billions. But the biggest line items in the federal budget are, in order (per FY07 budget): 1) Social Security, 2) Defense spending (more than the next 13 or 14 countries combined?), 3) Medicare (serious serious problems with Medicare but no matter, let's give everybody a drug benefit that's going to add another trillion dollars to our entitlement obligations... what the hell!), 4) Medicaid, 5) Interest on the debt.

Everything else pales in comparison. Unless you change the "Big 5" nothing else matters.

Thanks Mr. Byrnes. Keep up the good work.