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Drunk With Power, Spending Out of Control

The Washington Post reports that in 1987, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a transportation bill passed by Congress because it had 157 "earmarks"— money set aside for Congress members' pet projects that would ostensibly be considered too wasteful to pass as laws on their own merit.

Reagan made a show of his veto. It was a symbolic stroke against government waste, against the Democrats’ tradition of, for example, diverting every federal highway through West Virginia, then naming it after Sen. Robert Byrd.

Fast-forward to 2005. Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Early on a Saturday morning in August — the day of the week, and the month of the year, least likely to attract media attention — President Bush signed into law a highway bill passed by his own party with more than 6,000 earmarked projects.

Bush signed the bill after sternly telling his party he'd veto any highway bill that spent more than $256 billion. He promptly "adjusted" that figure to $284 billion after complaints from party leaders. The bill Bush ultimately signed came at a price of $286 billion, $295 billion if you count a few provisions disguised to make the bill look cheaper than it actually is. Not exactly holding the line.

The Republican Party's wholesale abandonment of limited government principles has been on display since President Bush took office. Government spending under the GOP's reign has soared to historic highs, any way you want to measure it. And in stark contrast to President Reagan — or even the president's own father—President Bush refuses to rein in spending. He hasn’t used his veto a single time since taking office — the longest such streak in U.S. history.

What continues to amaze, however, is the sheer arrogance and hubris with which the Republicans have chosen to govern. As Congressman Jeff Flake — one of the few principled Republicans in Washington — told the Washington Post, "Republicans don't even pretend anymore."

Consider that highway bill. The bill calls for nearly half a billion dollars to build two bridges in Alaska. One will connect the Alaskan mainland with a tiny island called Gravina (population: 50). It will cost U.S. taxpayers $230 million. In fact, when it comes to pork barrel politics, Alaska is the new West Virginia. That's because Alaska Rep.Don Young chairs the transportation committee. The transportation bill is named after Young's wife. The second bridge the bill appropriates money for — another $230 million — will be called "Don Young Way."

Robert Byrd would be proud.

You'd think that a Republican like Young would at least be embarrassed about all of this. He isn't. He's shameless. Upon hearing that only one other lawmaker in the entire Congress had outdone him in securing pork barrel projects, Young told the New York Times, "I'd like to be a little oinker, myself. If he's the chief porker, I'm upset."

Consider the case of Sen. Tom Coburn, another of the few in Congress willing to stand up to unrestrained spending. After a six-year career fighting waste in the House, Coburn won election to the Senate, and began putting administrative holds on his colleagues' wasteful projects. That didn't sit well with his fellow Republicans. Coburn's own party soon filed an ethics complaint against him.

His transgression? Coburn continues his medical practice in Oklahoma in addition to his duties as a U.S. senator. That apparently, is a violation of Senate ethics. Diverting millions of taxpayer dollars to pet projects that bear one's name and help one get reelected is not an ethical violation, but practicing medicine is. The chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee who will hear Coburn's complaint is Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott. Lott recently told Roll Call that after 30 years as a U.S. senator, he has learned how to work around pesky do-gooders like Coburn. "I fold [pork projects] into bills where you can't find them," Lott boasted. "I've been around here long enough to know how to bury it."

But perhaps the single member of Congress most afflicted with arrogance-of-power syndrome is Virginia Rep. Tom Davis. Davis headed up the GOP's campaign to retain control of the House in 2004, and today chairs the House Government Reform Committee. Earlier this spring, it was Davis' committee that began investigating the use of steroids in Major League Baseball. Of course, Congress has no constitutional authority to tell a private organization what its rules ought to be. No matter. When MLB asked Davis what jurisdiction he had to hold hearings, Davis sent a letter in reply asserting that his committee has jurisdiction “at any time, over any matter.” Any time, any matter. So much for limited government. And this from the chair of the committee in charge of keeping government in check!

Davis later threatened sanctions against MLB if it allowed an ownership group, in which billionaire leftist George Soros held a minority stake, to purchase the Washington Nationals — a stunning, possibly illegal threat to impose legal sanctions against a private organization for doing business with someone Davis opposes politically. Just last month, Davis stuck a provision into a funding bill that would prohibit development of a housing complex in his home district. The congressman told Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher he feared “urban kind of people” moving into his district. This is exactly the kind of federal government edict over local affairs Republicans are supposed to oppose.

Local officials told Fisher that Davis has said privately he fears too much development in his district will attract too many Democrats, which could one day imperil his reelection.

Republicans swept into office in 1994 on a radical platform promising to dramatically scale back the federal government, bring accountability to Capitol Hill, and put a check on the power and arrogance that runs rampant in Washington. Today, they embody that power and arrogance.

If you’ll remember, it was Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal health care that inspired much of the backlash that put the Republicans in power. Today, the leader of the Republican revolution — Newt Gingrich — has publicly aligned himself with Hillary Clinton to call for a larger government role in health care. That’s about as apt a metaphor for what’s happened to the “Republican Revolution” as any.

Radley Balko maintains the The Agitatorweblog.

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