By CHRIS EDWARDS
Federal pork spending has exploded in recent years. The highway bill passed in July was bloated with 6,371 pork projects, or earmarks, inserted by members of Congress. Overall, the number of pork projects has increased ten-fold during the past decade.
Many politicians see no problem with that. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay argues that it is better for members to earmark money for their districts than to leave spending to the "bureaucrats." Then there is Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who when asked whether Congress would cut pork, said, "I hope not. ... Pork barrel is in the eye of the beholder."
Actually, it isn't -- the case against most pork is clear. Most pork spending is for activities that are properly state, local or private for which the federal government has no role under the Constitution. Neither the bureaucrats nor Tom DeLay should be spending taxpayer money on items such as these from the 2005 omnibus budget bill:
U$350,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
U$218,000 for a seafood plant in Oregon.
U$250,000 for an Alaska statehood celebration.
U$250,000 for sidewalk repairs in Boca Raton, Fla.
U$1.4 million for upgrades to Ted Stevens Airport in Alaska.
U$100,000 to Rochester, N.Y., for a film festival.
The first two projects are unjustified giveaways to private businesses. Surely, millionaire rock stars could fund their Cleveland shrine by themselves.
The next two projects should be funded locally. A statehood celebration funded by federal taxpayers! Whatever happened to federalism? Sadly, state and local officials have figured out that they can shake the federal money tree for just about any local activity.
The final two projects are for local government activities that ought to be private. I can't judge whether upgrades to an Alaska airport are needed, but neither can politicians in far-off Washington. But if U.S. airports were privatized -- as they have been in other countries -- they could be upgraded by investors as needed based on local demands.
Sadly, Republicans have forgotten about privatization and federalism -- ideas that were championed by President Ronald Reagan. Today's GOP is hell-bent on micromanaging the nation through 14,000 annual pork giveaways. The Kings of Pork are no longer Democrats such as Sen. Robert Byrd, but Republicans such as Sens. Ted Stevens, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran.
The GOP leadership has allowed an "every man for himself" ethos to permeate Congress. Members and their staffs are preoccupied with grabbing money for hometown projects rather than focusing on national issues. The problem with pork is not just the particular money wasted, but a "hidden cost of perpetuating a culture of fiscal irresponsibility" as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma noted.
GOP leaders have set poor examples -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert is a champion at bringing pork home to Illinois and aiding local companies such as Boeing and United Airlines. Hastert once tacked $250,000 onto a defense bill for a candy company in his hometown to study caffeinated chewing gum. In the recent highway bill, he helped score $1.3 billion in pork projects for Illinois, second only to California's pork total.
Mission to Mars
Meanwhile, Majority Leader DeLay has pushed for an unaffordable manned space mission to Mars, apparently because it would mean billions of dollars for the Johnson Space Center in his Houston district. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley often rails against corporate tax cheats, but cheated taxpayers himself by earmarking $50 million for an indoor rainforest scheme in Iowa. No wonder we have $300 billion deficits.
The lack of principled leadership has a corrosive effect on members who may be willing to support restraint, but will not put their necks on the line without sacrifice at the top. Why should House Republicans restrain themselves when their leader is the porker-in-chief? The pork explosion is a neon sign advertising the fiscal failure of today's congressional leadership.
Republicans should insist that their leaders stop undermining restraint by using their positions for parochial gain. They should stop supporting leaders who call themselves conservatives just because they favor tax cuts. The real litmus test for conservatism is leadership on spending cuts and a willingness to forgo hometown pork.
X Chris Edwards is director of tax policy at the Cato Institute and author of "Downsizing the Federal Government" (Cato Institute, November 2005). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.