Pork -- sweet and sour

Henry David Thoreau was not much impressed with the activities of the national and state legislatures of his day and pointedly commented on the wide gap between promise and performance. ''Reform,'' he wrote in 1846, ''keeps many newspapers in its service, but not one man.''

It would startle Thoreau to examine the funding Congress may soon award to several highly questionable projects administered by the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation. Consider, for example, the O'Neill Unit in Nebraska, one part of the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Water Projects plan. The centerpiece of the O'Neill scheme is the proposed construction of the Norden Dam in northern Nebraska for the stated purpose of irrigating 77,000 acres.

Given the present economic stresses and the prospect of a budget deficit of enormous proportions it is reasonable to ask what significant benefits the taxpayers of the nation will realize when public money is spent. The O'Neill Unit will benefit private interests at a per-acre rate of 400 percent above the estimated value of the land to be irrigated.

Skepticism is further increased by the realization that a majority of the people of Nebraska itself want the federal tap turned off before dam construction proceeds. They are worried that their future may be mortgaged to a ballooning project whose estimated cost has rocketed to more than 500 percent above the initial government estimate. The astounding increases began with the first cost projection in 1963 at which time it was assumed that the O'Neill Unit , including the Norden Dam, would require $72.5 million from the federal treasury. By 1976 the figure had doubled to $144 million. It shot up to $180 million in 1978, $335 million in 1981, and now we are presented with a tentative estimate totaling $368 million. And of that amount only $45 million will be recoverable from water users.

In addition, the land to be irrigated will produce corn. Corn is one of the crops in the Department of Agriculture's set-aside program, which is designed to discourage production of surplus commodities. Construction of the costly dam by the Bureau of Reclamation will, therefore, directly conflict with the goals of federal farm policy. Moreover, as of Sept. 20, 1982, more than 400,000 acres of corn cropland are to be taken out of production because of oversupply.

Finally, there is the cost of the financing itself. Over the 60-year planned payback period interest charges alone would come to an estimated $8.3 million for every farm in the affected area, or $39,000 for each farm in the entire state of Nebraska, according to figures compiled by the Nebraska Tax Limit Coalition. At a time when we seek to apply sound business practice to the financial operations of the federal government it is difficult to conceive of any rationale that would justify a scheme no sane business person would invest in. And yet the public treasury's borrowed funds are to be expended for the O'Neill project's Norden Dam.

The powerful Chairman of the Appropriations Committee received a letter on July 13 from a senator in Nebraska's legislature urging the committee to take note of the fact that there was no longer popular or legislative support at home sufficient to pass a resolution of endorsement. Unfortunately, other considerations may carry more weight in Congress than the sentiments of the citizens of Nebraska.

A closer look at the case reveals the real reasons that projects like O'Neill survive. Even though direct benefits go to only a very few, these projects bring construction business into the affected areas and create jobs. No one denies that creating jobs is desirable, but it is legitimate to ask whether $368 million should be spent on a construction project of dubious merit. How many more jobs could that $368 million create if it were privately invested in new plants and equipment rather than withheld in the form of taxes and spent by the federal government. The point is simply this, job creation is no argument for bad investments.

The progressive deterioration of America's infrastructure will require large outlays in the near future; that is, priority public funds for priority public needs. Members of Congress are in an excellent position to open the federal spigot. Pork-barrel projects survive by this means even though support at home is dwindling rapidly.

In the multibillon dollar league, there is the Tennessee-Tombigbee barge canal and waterway, the Clinch River Breeder (nuclear) Reactor and the Garrison diversion project. (As the waste continues it is interesting to note that the Bureau of Reclamation has also managed to inflate its own operating budget - contrary to the administration's stated philosophy - by a whopping 23 percent between 1981 and 1982.

In the face of a growing deficit and the adverse effect this has on interest rates which in turn choke off needed investment and jobs, Congress continues to fund wasteful projects. Terminating these projects is a far better step in reducing the federal budget than approving new disincentives such as withholding taxes on interest and dividends. Lack of action in eliminating wasteful boondoggles serves to justify the low esteeem in which the public holds Congress as an institution despite the many good things it does. It makes a sham of attempts to restore our nation's fiscal health. But most importantly, it harms the overwhelming majority of those who elected us to protect the vital interests of our country. It may seem to some a bit harsh, but Thoreau's ire may indeed reflect the sentiments of many taxpayers who seek the elimination of pork-barrel projects when he commented in 1846, ''If one were to judge these (legislators) wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroad."

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