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Give pork a chance

as spending goes, the feds could do worse

June 24, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

If you have listened to the news lately, you know that the two greatest threats to America are terrorism and earmarks.

I'll spot you the risk of terrorists. But if the second greatest problem we face is earmark spending, our nation certainly has much to be grateful for.

An earmark is a form of pork-barrel spending, federal money that members of Congress steer toward pet projects.

The value of these projects is seldom openly discussed. Nor are they publicized. Congress itself doesn't even know which of these projects it is approving when budgets are passed.

So it's easy to understand why conventional wisdom holds that this form of pork is evil, a waste of taxpayer dollars and all that jazz.

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The poster boy of earmarks is the $170 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. That looks bad, I admit, but hey, we bought Alaska for two pennies an acre, so just consider it value-added investment in a cheap raw material.

Although it flies in the face of strict fiscal conservatism, after more than 20 years of federal budgets, I've concluded that pork is about the most sensible thing that the government spends its money on.

When asked by The Herald-Mail, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett helpfully released a list of his earmarks, which included funding for Edged Drive/Dual Highway intersection, Interstate 70 and I-270 improvements, the C&O Canal, the Catoctin Aqueduct and a space-robotics institute. All for the price of a handful of cruise missiles.

What's not to like? When it's all said and done, who's to say that the $200,000 spent on the canal's Big Slackwater will not have more positive net results than the entire war in Iraq?

Pork projects build roads, parks and schools. It would be hard to go through an entire day without enjoying some government improvement that wasn't funded by pork.

In fact, Americans don't hate pork at all. They hate other people's pork. We raise hell about pork, but then turn around and raise hell if Bartlett, et. al., doesn't provide us with any.

Pork is an equalizer. I don't begrudge Sen. Robert Byrd, the "King of Pork," one penny of the millions of dollars he has won for West Virginia. Through no fault other than geography and geology, this state has lagged behind the main for decades. Federal spending in West Virginia is a positive, efficient use of much-needed resources.

Further, the federal government can't know every local need. It can't know every crucial highway project. So we elect representatives who do - men and women who are in touch with our needs and stand up to see that they are met. Like it or not, pork-barrel spending is representative government at work.

I would also argue that far fewer of the projects are superfluous than is usually suggested. For every Lawrence Welk museum there are probably 50 Edgewood Drive/Dual Highway intersections. If you want to find stupid earmarks, you surely can. But they are the minority.

And speaking of minorities, pork spending is only a smidgen of the federal budget. And earmarks are not "additional" spending, they are directing money that, in essence, has already been approved toward specific projects.

The danger with earmarks is not in the earmarks themselves, it is with the darkness that surrounds them. An earmark just "appears" in the budget; no one knows who placed it there.

For example, under the current system of nondisclosure, it is would be a simple matter for a member of Congress to earmark money in the direction of a favored contractor - particularly one who is lining the member's campaign war chest with cash.

Of our three regional representatives, Bartlett has released his earmarks, Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va.) was working on it and Bill Shuster (Pa.) refused, as of this writing.

Good for Bartlett and, tentatively, Capito. If you are grabbing money solely for the people of your district, there should be no shame in that.

In fact, earmarks, and pork barrel spending in general, have less to do with spending than they do with the amount of power a senator or representative wields.

The size of the pie is set. If your congressional member can snag a larger portion of that pie, more power to him or her. If your congressional member continually comes up on the short end of the stick, perhaps it is time to elect a more effective leader.

In keeping with this, the so-called "pork buster" watchdogs should be more concerned with the size of the initial pie than they are with who gets the biggest slice.

And even so, when compared to military and entitlement spending, this pie isn't so very big to begin with.

Sen. Everett Dirksen is credited with the line, "a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." Notably, he was speaking of the defense budget.

"Pork" is not a billion here, a billion there. It is a million here, a million there. And even pork's most severe critics would be hard-pressed to argue that in the main it does considerable, tangible good - jobs, roads, research, points of interest for the public.

Unlike many government programs you can at least see the results of pork. That ought to be worth something.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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