Here an oink, there an oink: curbing pork won't be easy

It sounded good, President Bush's threat in his State of the Union message to veto any future spending measures that do not cut by 50 percent the number of “earmarks” — pet projects that members of Congress slip into appropriations bills.

More than 95 percent of these earmarks, derided by many as congressional “pork,” are inserted into appropriations bills after they've already been voted on, the result being that most lawmakers don't even know what's there (beyond their own earmarks, of course).

The spending bill Congress passed in December contained nearly 10,000 earmarks, totaling about $17 billion, including some for agriculture-related projects. That's almost 200 for each member of Congress.

“The people's trust in their government is undermined” by the earmarks, the president said in his address to Congress. “If you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I'll send it back to you with my veto.”

Which made a nice news sound bite, but amounts to little more than saber rattling.

His executive order has absolutely no impact on the thousands of earmarks in the December legislation, and because Congress more than likely won't pass any spending measures this year — waiting to see how things are stacking up in terms of a new president/administration in 2009 — chances are pretty good he'll never get to carry out his threat before leaving office.

He also conveniently overlooked even a mention of the millions of dollars a president can use to fund a laundry list of personal and political-payback pet projects through federal agency budgets. Unlike congressional earmarks, which can be tracked in spending bills and committee reports, the president's spending is much more difficult to pinpoint.

In signing the executive order, the president said, “The American people expect there to be transparency in the (appropriations) process” — that from one whose administration has stifled transparency at every turn.

“It is a giant example of hypocrisy,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who noted that there were twice as many earmarks in the last year of the Republican-controlled Congress than under the Democrats.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Congress should go even further and agree to impose “an immediate moratorium on all earmarks, and establish a panel to determine ways to end wasteful pork barrel spending.”

Ending, or even greatly reducing, earmarks will be easier said than done. Earmarks are a great way for members of Congress to get money for pet projects with little or no scrutiny, and a thriving cottage industry has been created of lobbyists who specialize in promoting earmarks for thousands of organizations and causes.

While the president's call for more transparency in spending taxpayer dollars may amount to little, the more sobering reality is that the $17 billion in earmarks is spit in the ocean compared to the runaway federal spending that has occurred on his watch.

$17 billion pales beside a $1 trillion war, billions of dollars in needless costs for a non-competitive Medicare drug program, and other spending over the past seven years that has resulted in an all-time record federal deficit.

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