WASHINGTON – Strange things are happening in Congress.
The playground bully in the Senate — the Appropriations Committee — actually took a loss last week at the hands of senators determined to strip so-called pork barrel projects from a bill that's supposed to be devoted to the war in Iraq and hurricane relief.
And the House this week will vote on requiring members to attach their names to "earmarks" — those hometown projects slipped into spending bills. The idea is that the sunshine of public scrutiny will mean fewer wasteful, silly sounding projects like $500,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta, N.C.
Lawmakers say voters are getting sick of all this pork; there's even a recent poll that says reforming earmarks is the most important issue facing Congress. Could it be that politicians are losing their appetite for the other white meat?
The House Appropriations Committee reports it has received 21,863 project requests from lawmakers. That's about 50 each for 435 members and a few nonvoting delegates. Still, it's progress. Last year, the panel got 34,687 requests.
And the so-called porkbusters' victory in the Senate — a 51-44 vote to eliminate $15 million for a seafood promotion program — probably doesn't presage long-term gains.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who led the charge to kill the seafood program, won the vote chiefly because the earmark was tacked on to the war spending bill. That seemed beyond the pale to a majority of senators.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the war and hurricane relief funding bill "should not be used as a Christmas tree to hang extraneous spending measures on. There's very much a consensus building that that's bad."
Coburn is likely to have considerably less success when the Senate turns to the regular spending bills it passes each year. Last year, he routinely lost votes to scrap earmarks by margins like 82-15.
That was the tally on a Coburn move to dump the "bridge to nowhere," a $223 million span in Alaska to link Ketchikan and Gravina Island, which has a population of about 50. Ultimately, shortly after a story mocking the bridge appeared in Parade Magazine — which reaches 36 million households — Congress decided to dump the bridge, though Alaska got to keep the money for other roads.
Now it turn out the state is budgeting $91 million to get the Gravina bridge started after all.
Earmarks run the gamut from grants to local law enforcement, road and bridge projects, visitor centers, agricultural research and contracts for homestate industries. The House Appropriations Committee says earmarks inserted by lawmakers into annual spending bills totaled $17 billion last year.
Politicians love to claim credit for channeling money back home, but Coburn is sensing an attitude adjustment when it comes to actually voting on earmarks.
"People don't want to go home and have to defend votes like the bridge to nowhere," Coburn said. "The American people are sick of wasteful government spending."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., has taken modest steps to rein in the earmarking excesses. He now requires lawmakers to submit applications justifying their requests and has stopped the practice of slipping projects into bills during final House-Senate negotiations conducted behind closed doors.
But after a year's respite, Lewis also will resume earmarking a giant bill funding education, labor and health programs. No earmarks were allowed in the bill last year because of a budget squeeze. Despite an even bigger 4 percent cut proposed by Bush, the education-labor-health bill will contains up to $1 billion in earmarks this year.
Coburn's victory against seafood promotion occurred a day after he was on the losing side of a nail-biting 49-48 vote to keep alive a controversial $700 million project to relocate a rail line along the Mississippi coast so the state can build a new east-west highway. Only an all-out effort by Mississippi Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott kept the plan alive.
Coburn is pushing to strip more earmarks from the war funding bill, such as one to give Northrop Grumman Corp., owner of the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., up to $500 million in compensation for business disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Northrop Gruman has insurance coverage for the business losses and is currently in litigation. The Pentagon says the company's insurers shouldn't be let off the hook if taxpayers are left holding the bag.
Coburn may also try to kill $230 million for three unrequested V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft tucked into the bill despite concerns about their safety and suitability for use in Iraq.