Pigs At The Taxpayer Trough

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Remember the line-item veto? (Don't stop reading; this isn't a wonk piece, I promise. Loads of laughs are coming your way in just a minute.)

The line-item veto was the holy grail of Republicans in the olden days when Democrats controlled Congress and used that clout to slip fatty hunks of pork barrel spending into massive spending bills. Presidents always had to sign these bills because if they didn't, there would be a crisis -- the Washington Monument would have to close or orphans would starve or the Grenadians would invade. If only the president had the line-item veto, Republicans argued in memorable documents like Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract with America, the fat could be sliced from the steak.

We haven't heard much about the old line-item veto in awhile. The Republicans did manage to pass it,Bill Clinton signed it, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment, for awhile. Now the Republicans are too busy pushing the pork barrel to worry about such things.

Republicans, even in this period of obese deficits, have become pork gluttons. Frankly, they're putting the Democrats to shame and that's no easy task.

The insider's term for pork is "earmark." Lawmakers earmark money in appropriations bills for specific uses. That circumvents the process that is supposed to determine how your tax dollars are spent on specific projects: either Congressional committees should specifically authorize expenditures in an open process, or agencies approve grants, also in an open process. Earmark is stealth spending.

But according to Newt Gingrich's heir, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, lawmakers have been bestowed a "fundamental right" to earmark taxpayer money. "We don't have to wait around for some bureaucrat to decide whether it's important or not. I'm not ashamed of the fact that there are earmarks in this bill," he said to the House.

That's for sure. DeLay was speaking of this year's "omnibus" bill, the annual last-minute, patchwork, legislate-in-the-dark, keep-the-government-funded atrocity. The House has approved it and the Senate punted it until January.

This bill, according to the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, has some 7,000 earmarks in it. Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense believes the figure is closer to 10,000. Certainly, there are more than 10,000 earmarks in all of this year's appropriations bill's combined.

And what are you getting for your hard earned tax dollars?

House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young squirreled away $50 million to make sure the Treasure Island Causeway in hometown St. Petersburg, Florida, doesn't have to have tolls. And there's a $500,000 for a nearby bike path. I'm sure that will make you feel better when you're stuck in two-mile toll line on I-95.

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and self-proclaimed clean government crusader, snagged $50 million for an indoor rainforest. That bit of bacon was stripped out of another bill a few weeks ago, but greased back into this "must pass to fund the government" bill. And just in the nick of time because Coralville, Iowa ,desperately needs a 4.5 acre domed ecosystem with a million gallon aquarium.

There's $400,000 for the Trout Genome Mapping project (presumably to make them easier to catch). And there's $225,000 for the National Wild Turkey Federation (presumably to make them easier to shoot).

Much of the spending is mission critical, as they say in government these days. There's the $3 million targeting golf education for kids. In these days of Tiger Woods, America's young people need an incentive to train themselves for a grueling life on the greens.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens froze $1.5 million for the biannual Arctic Winter Games. There's $225,000 for a Blue-Gray Civil War Theme Park in Kentucky, and another $225,000 to fix a swimming pool in Sparks, Nevada. Not to be outdone, Ashland County, Ohio, got $450,000 for the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center (was he a real person?), Ft. Worth lassoed $90,000 for audio equipment at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Cleveland drummed up $200,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If you want to see the complete list… well, you can't. There is no complete list.

But if you want to ask someone who knows everything that's in the bill… you can't. No one knows about all the hidden provisions. (To get a sense of the how massive this porcine philandering is, take a look at a partial list compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.)

If it occurs to you that this means that members of Congress have no idea what they're voting on, you're right on. It's like the voters have sent their representatives to a legislative mall with their credit cards and said, "Go buy yourself stuff that will help you get reelected."

And that is exactly what is so offensive about fatty earmarks - the greediness. Some earmarks, maybe most, go to worthy projects. A non-profit that my family is involved with is going to get some money this year. It is a fine result of an unfair process, unfair to other worthy causes and to your wallet.

The process is greased by the lobbying industry. Many, many people in Washington make good livings doing nothing but securing earmarks for clients. It's institutionalized corruption.

Like most corruption in the government, it's perfectly legal. And now we know that both sides do it.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer