WASHINGTON – Austerity in big-ticket government programs hasn't dulled lawmakers' appetite for special interest spending (search) items that curry favor back home.
The spending plan awaiting President Bush's (search) signature is packed with them, doling out $4 million for an Alabama fertilizer development center, $1 million each for a Norwegian American Foundation in Seattle and a "Wild American Shrimp Initiative," and more, much more.
Despite soaring deficits, lawmakers from both parties who approved the $388 billion package last weekend set plenty of money aside for home-district projects like these, knowing they sow goodwill among special interests and voters.
• Special-Interest Items in the Spending Bill
They also raised the ire of Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., a pork-barrel critic who took to the Senate floor to ask whether shrimp are so unruly and lacking initiative that the government must spend $1 million on them.
"Why does the U.S. taxpayer need to fund this `no shrimp left behind' act?" he asked.
Among items in the package: $335,000 to protect North Dakota's sunflowers from blackbirds, $2.3 million for an animal waste management research lab in Bowling Green, Ky., $50,000 to control wild hogs in Missouri, and $443,000 to develop salmon-fortified baby food.
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, won dozens of special items for his state — enough to fill 20 press releases.
In one aimed at northern Alabama, Shelby took credit for the $4 million budgeted for the International Fertilizer Development Center. "In addition to the important research conducted at this facility, the facility employs numerous Muscle Shoals-area residents," he noted.
Government watchdog Frank Clemente contends such special spending — often based more on a lawmaker's clout on appropriations committees than on objective factors such as a state's population — winds up costing even those who win a new road, park or research project.
"I think that's the biggest unfortunate thing about these special earmarks — they eat up billions of dollars," said Clemente, spokesman for Public Citizen. "Meanwhile they're cutting billions of dollars for environmental programs, or education programs or cops on the beat or what have you. That's kind of the unintended effect or the secret effect of these programs."
The time-honored practice flourished despite the ballooning national debt, less money for federal programs and rising concern about how government will finance the futures of Medicare and Social Security.
When Bush first took office, he vowed to cut pet projects from the federal budget, but the president has yet to veto a single spending bill. He is expected to sign the new plan as well.
Within hours of the spending bill's passage, lawmakers were touting the projects they brought home to constituents — a reminder that in federal budgets what is derided as pork-barrel spending by one constituency can be embraced by another as local assistance.
Missouri Republican Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent and Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson on Monday announced federal money for three-dozen projects in southern Missouri, including $50,000 for wild-hog control.
Ohio Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Democrat, and Steven LaTourette, a Republican, boasted about $350,000 for music education programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Nicole Williams, a spokeswoman for Tubbs Jones, said another lawmaker requested the money but Tubbs Jones supported it. With a deficit in Cleveland's public school system and music education among the programs getting cut, the museum aid could benefit the city as a whole, Williams said.
Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens claimed credit for channeling federal money to the state's salmon industry, including money to research use of salmon as a base for baby food.
"The goal is to increase the market for salmon by encouraging the production of more `value-added' salmon products," Murkowski's office said.
Michigan's two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, let it be known they had won $4 million for an environmentally friendly public transportation system in Traverse City.
Many of the special items that made the cut were promoted by lobbyists hired by interest groups, companies or communities to convince lawmakers money was needed for their projects.
"No, a bike trail in X, Y, Z part of the country doesn't benefit the country as a whole, but the people in that district or community (also) put their money into the pot," said Jim Albertine, a lobbyist who successfully pressed for research and development money for the superconductor industry.
The targeted spending was so prolific that McCain had no problem filling a half-hour speech with examples. The shrimp program really stuck in his craw.
"I am hoping that the appropriators could explain to me why we need $1 million for this — are American shrimp unruly and lacking initiative?" he asked.
McCain's query went unanswered, in part because spending documents don't identify who proposed each item or why.