Pet Projects Well Funded in Congress


Even in war, Congress has found money for the statue of Vulcan, the Montana Sheep Institute and the Motor Racing Museum.

As lawmakers wrap up work this week on the annual spending bills that fund the federal government, they are on pace to set a record for bringing home the bacon. Although steering money to pet projects has been going on since before the spittoons in the Senate chamber became merely decorative, much of this year’s spending has been especially dismaying to critics.

Lawmakers are not just spending more, the critics say; they are employing novel ways to bring goodies to their districts. They are doing it on a bipartisan basis--despite economic woes and war-on-terrorism expenses that have combined to turn huge surpluses into a return to deficits. In the process, they have rebuffed Bush administration efforts to rein in pork-barrel spending.


Congress, for example, took $423 million from the states’ allocation of transportation funds and shifted it to pet projects--something that critics say had never been done. The action, they said, cost California about $38 million.

Even so, the budget is filled with plenty of California projects, from $1.5 million to transform an old train depot in Needles into a transit center, to $100,000 for a study on bringing back the old Red Car trolley in downtown Los Angeles, to $290,000 to the Fund for the Preservation of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa.

California lawmakers expect the state to receive $500 million alone for water projects, including $6 million for projects at Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. And $4.75 million was provided to help fund Chinatown and Sierra Madre Villa stations along the Los Angeles-Pasadena light-rail line.

It is these types of projects that cause grumbling among some lawmakers.

“I understand all politics is local, but I think we as members of Congress have to stand up and say, ‘Look, we’ve got more important issues,’ ” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio).

Taxpayer watchdog groups predict that lawmakers will exceed last year’s record of packing the overall budget with 6,333 projects, costing $18.5 billion. (The final figures for project spending in the new budget will not be known for several weeks).

“This . . . spending continues even with the threat of massive new budget deficits on the horizon,” said Joe Theissen, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Lawmakers defend the projects, saying it is important for constituents to get something back for the taxes they send to Washington. Additionally, lawmakers say, the projects are culturally and economically important.

“Everybody wants to keep the spending down, but everybody’s got an obligation to push for their district as well,” said Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), who secured funding for the mining and mineral museum.

Marshall Wittmann, a political scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute, said: “Nothing focuses a politician’s mind like the pork that can get one reelected. Most members of Congress can make a very twisted argument about how their particular piece of pork fits into the national interest. Creativity knows no bounds when it comes to pork-barrel spending.”

Applying the Pork Back at Home

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) secured $2 million--on top of last year’s $1.5 million--to renovate the 200,000-pound monument to Vulcan, the Roman god of metalwork, in Birmingham, Ala. An aide to Shelby said the project is as important of a symbol to that city’s steel heritage as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Fransciso.

An aide to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) said that the $190,000 provided for the Motor Racing Museum in Spartanburg, S.C., will provide a boost to the local economy.

An aide to Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who secured $1 million earmarked for the Atomic Testing History Museum in Las Vegas, said the facility would help the public better understand the danger of nuclear weapons. “We had a lot of people who either gave their lives or had their lives cut short by the above-ground nuclear testing that was done at the Nevada test site,” the aide said.

And a spokesman for Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) said the $740,000 provided for the Lancaster National Soccer Center would have a “dual benefit: build character in our kids and serve as an economic magnet.”

Some lawmakers were less than pleased to be quizzed about the projects. Asked about the $400,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute, Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.) said, “We have long funded research and development in the production of food and fiber, period.”

In a new twist, some lawmakers have made sure that spending for homeland security has meant spending for home. Reid secured $10 million to fund the proposed National Center for Combating Terrorism at the Nevada test site for training firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers.

But it’s “old-fashioned pork” that’s stirred the ire of critics.

“It’s the worst that I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of such spending. “In this time of war, we must do better.”

Business as Usual at Unusual Time

“It’s unfortunately business as usual, at a time when business is not usual,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “Cutting waste and mismanagement is now not only a taxpayer issue, it is a national security emergency.”

Critics of the spending say they do not view all of the projects as unworthy. Rather, they say, the projects should be considered against other spending needs and proposals.

Lawmakers say they know better what their districts need than bureaucrats.

“I think there is a value in letting the elected representatives have a direct say in funding in their communities,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who secured $750,0000 for a project in Glendale to remove chromium 6 and other heavy metals from drinking water.