As Washington engages in a high-minded debate over budgetary priorities such as education and foreign aid, far less talked about are an estimated $12 billion worth of special-interest "earmarks" tucked into the fiscal 2000 spending bills.
The nearly $600 billion discretionary budget includes a myriad of add-ons - pet projects of lawmakers that benefit districts, businesses, or industries but were not requested by government departments. Ranging from money for a new US Navy helicopter carrier in Mississippi to a research grant in Georgia on the pungency of Vidalia onions, they vividly illustrate a growing trend in recent years of lawmakers slipping funds for favorite projects into the big annual appropriations bills.
Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame, say antiwaste groups. Such frills are ironic, they say, given how Congress and the White House are struggling to advance their budget priorities without spending a penny of the surplus generated by Social Security taxes.
The Senate Nov. 2 followed the House in passing a sweeping 1 percent across-the-board federal spending cut to save $4 billion. President Clinton has vowed to veto the measure. A final budget deal is expected by Nov. 11.
The number of earmarks jumped sharply from 1,596 in the fiscal 1997 budget to a record 2,838 in fiscal 1999, according to the Washington watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). "There will be more pork than usual [this year]," says CAGW spokesman Jim Campi.
Meanwhile, the spending bills also include dozens of environmental riders that translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits for key extractive and land-use industries by easing restrictions on their environmental impact.
'Sneak attack' on environment?
Last year, lawmakers pushed through 40 such environmental riders by attaching them to must-pass appropriations bills. This year, the bills so far contain 58 riders whose beneficiaries would include the mining, oil and gas, timber, and ranching industries.
"We consider this a sneak attack on the environment, because these are not riders that would pass on their own in the light of public scrutiny," says Lexi Shultz, staff attorney for the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) here.
The rise of such special-interest earmarks and riders reflects two imperatives for the Republican-led Congress: to pass the mandatory annual spending bills despite the razor-thin 222-to-211 GOP majority, and to direct spending by the Clinton administration into GOP priority areas.
Greasing the skids
Giving the nod to local projects can help secure passage of the yearly appropriations bills, because many lawmakers view the bills as an opportunity to do something for their districts, congressional appropriators acknowledge.
In the House alone, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the beginning of this year were lobbying for unauthorized projects totaling $80 billion - a sum that has been greatly scaled down, appropriations staffers say.
At the same time, the surge in earmarking reflects what Republicans acknowledge is their effort to gain more control over how federal funds are used.
"There has been a general tendency to increase earmarks when you have a Republican Congress and a Democratic administration," says House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. "If [funds] are not identified for specific projects, they tend to find their ways to Democratic districts. We'd like to fund our priorities."
For example, he says many of the high number of earmarks in the fiscal 2000 budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are aimed at helping communities comply with laws on clean water and safe drinking water. "It was a wise use of resources," he says.
Not all lawmakers, however, agree with this rationale. They say the growth in earmarks is simply another sign of the dangerous rise of pork-barrel politics and the pull of big money in US politics.
McCain rails at the defense bill
Perhaps this year's most glaring example of the trend, critics say, is the $268 billion defense-spending bill.
"Looking at this bill - larded with earmarks and set-asides for powerful defense contractors, influential local groups and officials, and other parochial interests - one can understand the distrust with which the average citizen views the federal government," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona stated recently on the Senate floor.
Senator McCain, a presidential contender who has vowed to fight special interests, said the bill includes $6.4 billion in "low-priority, wasteful spending not subject to the kind of deliberative, competitive process that we should demand of all items in spending bills" - more so than in any previous defense bill.
Specific defense items - not requested by the Pentagon - include $375 million to begin construction of an LHD-8 helicopter carrier in the Mississippi district of Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and $275 million to build five F-15 fighter aircraft in the district of House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, according to CAGW.
The 13 annual spending bills are littered with hundreds of smaller items, such as $100,000 for a grant to develop "pungency testing procedures" for Vidalia onions in Georgia, and $500,000 for research in swine waste management in North Carolina.
As the two sides inch toward compromise on the five remaining spending bills, Mr. Clinton's major priorities include securing funding for 100,000 new classroom teachers, 50,000 more community policemen, foreign aid, and paying US back dues for the United Nations.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society