As reported Wednesday in The Morning Call, Toomey, who is from the Lehigh Valley, is a key figure in an effort to curtail "earmarks," the spending packages Congress allots to the pet projects of individual members, usually in their home districts.
I'll get to Toomey's proposal shortly, but nobody ever exposed wasteful government spending better than Proxmire, who gave out monthly "Golden Fleece Awards" when he served in Washington from 1957 to 1989.
One went to the National Institute for Mental Health, which spent $97,000 to find out what went on in a Peruvian brothel. "The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy," The New York Times reported. Another was for a $27,000 study on why prisoners want to get out of jail, and a Pentagon study asked if GIs should carry umbrellas in the rain.
Proxmire's most famous "Fleece" award was for a Pentagon contract that paid $400 per hammer and $1,200 per toilet seat.
Have things improved since Proxmire left Congress in 1989? Hardly.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan advocacy group, lists hundreds of earmarks arranged for congressmen, including some that appear worthwhile, such as a $2.4 million contract for a company in Bally, arranged by U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th District, and other congressmen.
Another, arranged by Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th, and Rep. Tim Holden, R-17th, spent $500,000 on a wind turbine project, affirming what I've argued previously — that the windmill boondoggles could never function without massive public subsidies.
The TCS list showed earmarks for such things as an $89 million contract to build a parking lot at a Navy base in Guam and a $17.5 million cadet fitness center at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. (The military used to keep people in shape with cheapo things like running and push-ups.)
The TCS also detailed how $15.9 billion in earmarks for 2010 was divvied up. The top three earmark senators were Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the top bosses of the all-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Those three alone were conduits for $1.26 billion in earmarks.
According to Common Cause, such earmarks are typically spent on no-bid contracts, arranged by individual members of Congress, for special interests that have been generous with "political campaign contributions."
Wednesday's story said Toomey teamed with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to push legislation ending earmarks. The story noted that a main supporter of earmarks is Sen. Inouye, which comes as no surprise to anybody who looks at the TCS lists.
President Obama had vowed to veto any bill with earmarks, it was reported, but an earlier Associated Press story divulged hundreds of millions of dollars in pork barrel spending he approved for two of his most ardent supporters, California Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein.
All this does not mean that all the spending is on worthless projects like the Peruvian brothel study. Ray Harris, president of Bally Ribbon Mills, the company I mentioned above, told me his contract is for something essential. "This is something the Air Force totally wants," he said, describing a technical weaving process that will be used in components for aircraft.
"It's not considered an earmark anymore," Harris said. "They're called small business innovative research projects."
I'm happy the $2.4 million, ahem, innovation may be creating jobs in Bally, but I'd prefer that all such spending be determined by some process other than members of Congress throwing taxpayer money at each other in return for favors.
"Earmarks," said Pennsylvania Common Cause director Barry Kauffman, "have the ability to skew the governing process. … Not every [member of Congress] has earmarks. The more powerful control them. They rarely are made on a merit or need basis."
I hope Toomey's measure succeeds, but I'd be more optimistic if he decided to take a delightfully nasty approach to push it along.
Take a page out of Proxmire's book.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.