Those expensive non-crucial items — also known as "earmarks" — lawmakers stick into nearly every spending bill to help assure their reelection would be better labeled "nose marks" for all those snouts in the public trough. Even the fact deficit spending is expected to reach unprecedented levels hasn’t deterred the collective gluttony.
In the current omnibus appropriations bill, for instance, there are at least 9,200 nose marks worth about $12 billion plus. The projects range from a honeybee factory in Texas to funds to study stargazing in Hawaii and a rodeo museum in South Dakota. Most appropriately was one for $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. But why go all the way to Iowa when the stench is as strong on Capitol Hill?
They were all endorsed by the Senate, which overwhelmingly defeated Sen. John McCain’s enraged efforts to strip them from the $410 billion bill for running the government through September. This action simply verifies what anyone who has been around Capitol Hill longer than five minutes understands without question — trying to wean a member of Congress from his diet of fat is like trying to separate a pig from his slop, and woe unto anyone who seriously tries, including Barack Obama.
Even the majority Democratic leadership, bristling at suggestions from the White House that it should be prudent in these matters, made it clear to the new president that Congress would mind its business as authorized by the Constitution and he should mind his. In other words, Mr. President, butt out. In addition, the party’s top power bloc took the moment to remind His Excellency that as an Illinois senator he was responsible for some $90 million of these items for his home state.
"I don’t think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was quoted as telling reporters. "I hope all of you got that down."
Meanwhile, the White House flack, Robert Gibbs, was promising that the rules would be changed once the current appropriations bill is passed. Oh yeah? To paraphrase "True Grit," that’s brave talk for a myopic overweight press secretary.
McCain, the Republican candidate for president, angrily reminded the world while glaring at any fellow club member brave enough to be the chambers that his victorious opponent had promised emphatically during the campaign to cut off the rancid pork supply as soon as he entered the White House. Most observers at the time were quick to wish Obama luck while murmuring sotte voce, "That’ll be the day." Obviously McCain has had enough of his "nice guy" campaign image and is back being a fighter jock ready to drop bombs wherever he feels it is necessary, including on hugely expensive new helicopters for the president.
Actually, McCain’s party quadrupled the number of nose marks during its years in the majority and the Democrats made a pass at cutting down on them without a great deal of success, largely because they too need the campaign money and votes to stay in office generated by funneling millions into pet projects in their states and districts. Trouble is that some of this money always seems to help their personal benefactors despite efforts to establish transparency rules.
The champion nose marker for the second time in a row has been Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who got stared at the hardest by McCain. His one-year grand total is $470.8 million. His home state and GOP colleague, Sen. Roger Wicker, grabbed second with $390.9 million. The top 10 big time porkers included six Republicans and four Democrats. So the greed is fairly balanced between the parties.
It’s easy to get angry about all this profligacy, especially in hard times like these, but almost since the first Continental Congress legislative pork barrel spending has been a way of life in one form or another. The president’s current record-breaking budget will be replete with these nose marks. You can take that to the bank. Whether Obama has the clout and savvy to do something about it is anyone’s guess. But the odds aren’t good.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)