For weeks now, I have been hiding behind the bushes poised to pounce on a Congressional earmark that epitomizes pork barrel spending. Thanks to the Associated Press I found what I was looking for:
A $1.7 million earmark for pig odor research in Iowa from its senator, Tom Harkin, a Democrat.
When you stop yukking -- and it may take weeks because this story has legs -- consider yourself living downwind from a hog farm.
"You hold your breath and when it's really bad you get the taste in your mouth," said Carroll Harless, a 70-year-old retired corn-and-soybean farmer from Iowa Falls.
The AP tells us Iowa enjoys a $12 billion pork industry with its 20 million hogs and 3 million residents, many of them gagging from the stench of pig waste.
We also learn researchers at Iowa State University report little success so far in reducing the odors. Harkin is willing to be the butt of late night comedian jokes if his $1.7 million earmark in the final 2008 $470 billion spending bill now deliberated in Congress works.
Having set the stage, lets talk political realities of earmarks and appropriation spending:
Earmarks are to Congress as is mother's milk to newborns. They rank second only to raising campaign funds. Combine the two and that's what Congress does.
Earmarks aren't going away. Yes, the 2006 Congress passed stricter ethics laws and established guidelines for earmarks. Among them: No congressman can personally benefit; they must pass certain standards known as the "smell" test (I kid you not) and they must be introduced before a conference committee meeting and public hearings held only if they are challenged by another congressman.
Also, keep in mind the way Congress does business: You vote for my project and I vote for yours. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo.
Bottom line: Earmarks are defended or opposed as each congressman sees fit. It's sort of like the fox running the chicken coop.
Don't believe for a minute that John McCain or President Obama would ban earmarks. Appropriations are a constitutional right given to Congress.
When it comes to earmarks, congressmen speak out of both corners of their mouth.
Republican Minority Leader John Boehner of Illinois, the most outspoken critic of earmarks in the House, is among the all-time leaders securing pork for his district. It is a practice he helped introduce and made popular by other Republicans when the GOP regained control of the House in 1994.
McCain, bless his heart, is at least consistent in opposing earmarks. "My constituents are mad, really mad" about wasteful government spending, he told reporters outside the Senate chambers earlier this week.
But McCain is not really being straight forward. His Arizona House colleagues as well as senate partner John Kyl all have secured millions of dollars in earmarks for their state. Kyl has gone so far as oppose earmarks from fellow legislators while at the same time secured some $200 million
for such projects as a new Navy training center in landlocked Arizona.
Congressional earmarks are the fruit of horror stories by watchdog groups, reporters and bloggers such as myself. They make great copy and sometimes are the only means to embarrass a congressman to reconsider.
The classics are produced by those congressmen with seniority and most entrenched in the system controlling committee chairmanships so as to make a rookie first termer intimidated from challenging such nonsense as the "bridge to nowhere."
These people have no shame. Remember Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin saying "thanks, but no thanks," to the bridge-to-nowhere earmark supported by Alaska Sen. John Stevens and Rep. Don Young? Turns out she took the money anyway and spent a part of it for a road to the bridge that may never be built to accommodate a few hundred people on a distant island.
The 2006 earmark guidelines at least stopped the audacity of Alaska's Rep. Young, probably the most prolific earmarker in Congress, who, legend has it, appropriated $400,000 for a project in Florida. Locals opposed the project. Turns out Young received campaign contributions from the Florida developer who requested the earmark. Young didn't give a damn whether the earmark was opposed or not. He did his part.
I think Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota nailed the argument over accepting earmarks, appropriations and, in his case, federal stimulus. In defending his decision, he said Minnesota receives back only 70 cents on the dollar his state sends to Washington.
I wish I knew where he obtained his metrics. Because if what he says is true, I'd be willing to guess that West Virginia is reaping profits from their tax dollars through the largess of its Democratic Senator, Harry Byrd. Old Harry may be the conscience of the Senate, but through his work he's turned the federal treasury into an ATM machine for his state.
And, then there's Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania who unabashedly produces earmarks, (he says jobs) to his district. He recently suggested the feds build a prison in his district to hold the accused terrorists now confined at Guantanamo Bay while waiting their trials. To hear his critics tell it, Murtha couldn't be elected dogcatcher outside his district. Yet he's been re-elected by his constituents 12 times.
This whole earmark issue is way overblown. The process stinks as do the hog farms in Iowa. But it is the way business is done in Washington. You gotta smell the roses.
The cop assigned to the gang detail in Los Angeles can prove if tattoos are removed from gangbangers, crime incidents among rival gangs decrease. Thus, a couple hundred thousand bucks in an earmark will save lives.
The question which follows is: why should a family in a gang-less community of, say, Farrabut, Minn., Gov. Pawlenty's state, pay for tattoo removal in LA?
If someone can design a better workable solution, I would like to know.
The Obama administration says it will try AFTER this latest round of appropriations housekeeping.
The independent Taxpayers for Common Sense reports Obama in his few short years in the Senate provided $28 million in earmarks for his state of Illinois.
Even his strongest supporters among Democrats are balking.
"I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do. I hope all of you got that down," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday, saying that Obama could only "suggest" certain reforms for Congress to consider.
Opponents have catapulted the word earmarks to the same antipathy level as Republicans have turned raising taxes into the devil's work.
I don't enjoy paying taxes any more than the next guy. Nor am I thrilled with the idea of paying for an earmark for the benefit of some other guy. It's the way the system works.
But as most of us, if the government wants to give me money -- as last year's $300 stimulus check -- I'll take it.
As our president is prone to say, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." The dilemma is, the system is broken but no one has come up with a better solution.