In a keynote address to the 2004 Republican National Convention that was both a barnburner and a bridge-burner, retiring Sen. Zell Miller assailed his fellow Democrats' commitment to funding the U.S. Armed Forces. "U.S. forces armed with what?" he thundered from the podium. "Spitballs?"
Based on the emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that passed the House Appropriations Committee Thursday, the good Georgian should have guessed peanuts. Committee Democrats tacked more than $20 billion onto President Bush's request for war funding. "We have provided all of the money the president requested -- and more," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer chortled to the Washington Examiner. But the additional spending was almost entirely for peanut storage in Georgia, spinach growers in California, more office space on Capitol Hill, and other projects unrelated to national defense.
The war supplemental bill is the first major pork-barrel binge of the new Democratic Congress, continuing fiscally irresponsible practices that Nancy Pelosi and company promised in 2006 to end. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, the appropriation contains $400 million for rural schools and $283 million for the Milk Income Loss Program. The shrimp and menhaden fishing industries receive a $120 million bailout while citrus growers get $100 million.
The so-called U.S. Readiness, Veterans' Health, and Iraq Accountability Act gives peanut farmers $74 million, spinach growers $25 million, and allocates another $25 million for livestock. Then there is $500 million for emergency wildfire suppression, on top of the $831 million the U.S. Forest Service already has for this function. The bill also features a minimum wage increase, something being dealt with in a separate piece of legislation.
Lawmakers voted themselves $16 million to convert the old Food and Drug Administration building into additional office space for members of Congress and their staffs. This extra money was approved even though taxpayers are already spending $600 million to add 160,000 feet of new office space to the Capitol. The FDA's Office of Women's Health is awarded $4 million.
Why the extra helpings of pork from the party that pledged to change the way Washington does business? These unrelated and often wasteful projects are intended to buy enough votes to paper over the Democrats' divisions over Iraq. While Democratic backbenchers had hoped to defund the war, others can be bought with $60.4 million for salmon fisheries.
Secondly, it is easier to win votes for a measure intended to provide money for soldiers in wartime and veterans than to justify some of these requests on their own terms. In a $124 billion emergency appropriations bill, $50 million for asbestos mitigation at the U.S. Capitol Plant doesn't look like much.
"This emergency supplemental bill has more ornaments hanging over our many branches of government than the White House Christmas tree," scoffed Congressman Jerry Lewis, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. It would be easier to take Lewis's complaint seriously, however, if it weren't for the GOP's own sad descent into tawdry pork-barrel politics during the last Congress.
In 2005, congressional Republicans loaded 6,300 special projects, totaling $24 billion, into a $268 billion transportation bill -- projects that came in handy for the leadership when it came time to cajole reluctant members into narrowly approving the Central American Free Trade Agreement. That year's energy bill, with $13 billion in subsidies for oil, gas, and nuclear companies, was also criticized for containing too much pork by the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute and the liberal Center for American Progress alike.
It was under the last Congress that "earmark" became a household word while President Bush never vetoed a single spending bill. The arrogance behind such multimillion dollar embarrassments as Sen. Ted Stevens's Bridge to Nowhere helped cost the Republican Party its image for fiscal probity and, ultimately, its control of the nation's purse.
Pork remains a bipartisan affair. Bloomberg News reports that as the appropriations process shifts to the Senate, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana will ask for $3.2 billion to fund flood protection projects. His GOP colleague Gordon Smith of Oregon is seeking $400 million to extend a program that "funnels a portion of federal timber sales to counties with national forest land, which isn't subject to taxation."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are pushing to add money for Colorado ranchers whose cattle died in blizzards this winter and for farmers growing mangoes and avocados. Even the most worthwhile of these requests don't belong in a war spending bill. They all threaten to add to the cost of a supplemental bill that, according to Heritage Foundation budget expert Brian Riedl, already costs $721 million per page.
There's only way to keep appropriators from allowing spinach and peanuts to compete with our troops for dollars. The White House and the remaining fiscal conservatives in Congress must be willing to fight them. When only two of the eleven appropriations bills passed last year, the number of pork projects fell 73 percent and their cost declined by 55 percent. This is a better guarantee of budgetary discipline than the Democrats' promised and probably short-lived moratorium on earmarks.
When the Democrats outbid the president on the one major category of spending they wish to cut, it does not bode well for their claims to be deficit hawks. Their budget priorities may be peanuts, but you can bet the price tag won't be.