Slipping pet projects into spending bills long has been a point of pride among Washington’s lawmakers. But growing discord over the practice is expected to pit Republican against Republican this week in the GOP-controlled Congress.
The major dispute involves projects contained in a “must-pass” emergency spending bill for the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. A handful of Republican senators plan to challenge several of the funding requests unrelated to the war or hurricane recovery.
The most controversial request seeks $700 million to help pay for moving railroad tracks in Mississippi. The state’s two influential GOP senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, are pushing the project. But it is strongly opposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Some critics have likened the railroad project to the funding request for the so-called bridge to nowhere in Alaska that generated a public outcry last year.
And the fate of the Mississippi proposal has emerged as a key test of whether Congress is in the mood to crack down on approving tax dollars for such projects amid steep federal budget deficits.
Also testing that resolve will be an expected fight in the House over proposed new rules that would give lawmakers more opportunity to challenge some funding requests.
The proposal -- part of an ethics reform bill crafted by GOP House leaders in response to the influence-peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- is limited in scope. Under the provision, lawmakers could raise special objections to funding requests added to spending bills late in the legislative process.
But Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has signaled he will fight against the proposal. A spokesman for Lewis said the chairman had already moved to limit the number of projects that lawmakers could seek to include in spending bills.
Lawmakers traditionally have been reluctant to challenge funding requests for colleagues’ projects for fear it could cost them federal money for projects in their own districts or states.
But critics of such requests were emboldened after Congress came in for national ridicule last year for providing $223 million for a bridge that would connect the Alaskan town of Ketchikan to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants. Eventually, limitations were placed on the funding.
Republican congressional leaders also face pressure from fiscal conservatives to rein in spending in the face of a federal budget deficit projected at $423 billion this year.
“If House and Senate leaders fail to establish fiscal discipline on the [emergency] spending bill, they will probably have lost their last, best chance at restoring Congress’ credibility on deficit spending issues in this election year,” said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union, a budget watchdog group.
The Senate spending bill totals $106.5 billion -- the vast bulk of which would pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for hurricane relief.
But along with the money request to relocate the Mississippi rail line, the bill would fund a variety of other projects.
Overall, it exceeds by more than $14 billion the emergency spending measure the House approved last month -- a bill that was in line with the request from the White House.
Coburn has pledged an effort to expunge “extraneous ‘pork’ projects and other nonemergency items” from the measure.
The Mississippi railroad project, he said, is “hardly a national emergency.”
He also called it “ludicrous” for taxpayers to spend $700 million to re-route the rail line after its owner, CSX, spent more than $250 million to repair the line after Hurricane Katrina.
But a spokeswoman for Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it would be “unwise to leave this vital rail line in a position that makes it vulnerable to damage or destruction from a future storm. If left in its current location,” Jenny Manley said, “a storm could again wipe out the rail line, crippling businesses nationwide that rely on the line’s services.”
Brian M. Riedl, a budget expert for the Heritage Foundation think tank, sees the project as “a test to see how serious [lawmakers] are about reform.... If passed, it renders hollow everything that’s been said about reining in pork.”
A spokesman for the White House budget office said that the Senate bill, with a price tag “so astonishingly higher” than the White House request, was “a point of serious concern.”
Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group, said he feared that the bill would grow even more. Some Democratic senators, for instance, may seek to add money to it for veterans’ healthcare and improved border security, he said.
“Breaking the bank has become one of the last bastions of bipartisanship,” Ashdown said.