Perennial Pork

Washington may appear to be in a scandal-tossed frenzy. But beneath the surface, some things never change. Take, for example, legislators' desire to earmark a little federal funding for the folks back home.

The pork barrel's still full, as those most determined to empty it, such as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, point out. The senator is one Republican who's trying to remain true to his party's call for less federal spending. But many GOP loyalists see the garnering of projects for their districts as part of the job description. No different from Democrats in that regard.

One of the few bulwarks of bipartisanship is the readiness on all sides to make room for that special item that will bring a smile to constituents.

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But there are a few who try to sniff out the pork and, at the least, expose it to public view. McCain's staff, for example, found $607 million worth of earmarked projects in the 1999 Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill - hospitals, waste disposal plants, and other items.

What makes these items suspect, says the senator, quoted in Congressional Quarterly Weekly, is their distance from any "merit-based prioritization process." They are products of legislative opportunism, not deliberation. Overall, earmarked special projects account for about 2 percent of federal discretionary spending, as much as $15 billion a year.

Some of these projects may be worthwhile. If so, why not use the normal legislative process? The answer to that, sadly, is that pork-barrel add-ons are the norm. A cheer for those who want to change that.

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