Congress, that irrepressible spending machine that is held in lower public esteem than even the current war-strapped president, has been busy stuffing constituent Christmas stockings full of goodies and if you happen to be one of the lucky ones, the coming year should be a good one. That is if George W. Bush doesn’t issue an order to his troops to ignore most of the outlandish projects tacked on to the $555 billion omnibus appropriations bill just passed and the $459 billion defense appropriations measure adopted last month.
Could he do that? Probably. Should he do that? He most definitely should.
The Democratic leadership, which took over last January with a pledge to curtail all those politically motivated so-called earmarks in appropriations bills, may have slowed the processslightly to about 26 percent fewer than the practice’s high-water mark in appropriations bills two years ago, but the bills still contain about 11,000 of the treasury-draining items, many of which are as outrageously audacious as those of any time in the past. Among them is the most perfectly crafted example of log rolling anyone has seen in some time — an Alaskan ferry plan that is shamelessly sponsored by a senator and a House member who are both under investigation.
When Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Jones lost in the highly publicized bridge to nowhere debacle last year — it became the battle cry for the anti-earmark forces — most people thought they were finished. Ha. Those who did just failed to understand the sheer gall of these two old-time sourdoughs. They came back this year with a plan for an expeditionary boat that would travel the same route as the bridge would have. The cost to the taxpayers is $20 million, at least to start; more later.
It is literally a ferry to nowhere. Well, not quite, since it would connect Anchorage to a pretty-much desolate rural peninsula known as the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where Jones’ son-in-law just happens to own land. Stevens pitched the expeditionary craft as for military purposes, but Young touted it for what it was — a passenger boat. Who would want to go? Plenty apparently, since the peninsula is two hours from Anchorage now and only 15 minutes if the boat is built, making the area prime for suburban real estate development.
Both Stevens and Young have been under some federal scrutiny for their dealings with an Alaskan oilman and lobbyist.
Okay! So what’s the use of being in Congress if you can’t do a favor now and then for your loyal constituents like a museum in Canton, Ohio, honoring the nation’s first ladies? Does anyone really give a hoot? Most people have trouble identifying all the presidents and vice presidents. The omnibus bill includes another $126,000 for that pet project of Ohio Republican Rep. Ralph Regula whose wife founded the museum and whose daughter runs it on the site of the home of Ida Saxton McKinley, the wife of President William McKinley. Remember her? Regula persuaded the National Park Service to spend $1.1 million to buy the place way back in 1991 and has made financing it a major cause since.
In the omnibus bill’s roads and dams section, there is a neat $100,000 for signage in Los Angeles’ fashion district, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. This is small change compared to the $9 million for “rural preparedness” in Kentucky. Then there is $250, 000 for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Wash. But what’s a few hundred thousand dollars — or even a million or so — when no one in Washington, D.C., really starts counting until at least $1 billion.
Not all earmarks are unworthy or so blatantly self-serving as the bridges to nowhere and its ferry successor. Necessary water treatment facilities and other community projects that have been ignored by the government are legitimate. But enough of them are so outlandish that the phenomenon has received an increasing amount of bad publicity and has added to an image of general congressional irresponsibility and even venality. A large number of activist groups, both liberal and conservative, have sprung up to attack the practice.
Before you open your Christmas stocking, you should be aware that Bush has ordered his budget people to consider ignoring all those earmarks that aren’t backed up by specifically binding legislative language. There is likely to be a giant howl from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers believe the credit they receive for buttering constituents’ bread is a necessity to holding office. That may be, but they aren’t likely to get much sympathy from this president who will soon be in the process of entering his final year and couldn’t care less.
Contact Dan Thomasson at thomassondan(at)aol.com.