Pork projects

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Federal budget earmarks -- those well-hidden local pork projects -- generate as much negative public reaction as just about any antic undertaken by our lawmakers. When the public hears horror stories about million-dollar fruit-fly projects or equally expensive swine-odor projects, there is virtually universal opposition.

These earmarks are tiny but expensive local issues tucked away in appropriations bills that are funded with no debate. Somewhere around $30 billion of your tax dollars go to fund this pork each year.

Sensing the growing public opposition to runaway pork, both leading U.S. Senate candidates in Missouri -- Roy Blunt and Robin Carnahan -- this week pledged to curtail earmarks if elected. If that comes to pass, they would join Sen. Claire McCaskill, who swore off pork projects when she was elected.

Despite their low standing in public support, earmarks do serve local purposes. And without the earmark process, those discretionary funds would fall into the hands of the executive branch and that would not bode well for many of us.

Carnahan says she would oppose any earmarks period. Blunt goes beyond that and pledges to end the practice of earmarks and to introduce legislation to reduce the federal budget by $30 billion -- the amount spent on earmarks last year.

I have a wise friend who worked on Capitol Hill who argues strongly in favor of earmarks. His argument is that without local project funding, our needs would be left in the hands of some faceless bureaucrat who probably could not find Southeast Missouri with a GPS. He's probably right.

The problem with earmarks is the obvious: Projects in our district are important to our future, while most other earmarks are simply pork projects designed to curry favor with one group or another. That's just human nature, I assume.

We rural residents tend to look favorably on agriculture earmarks, for example, while urban residents support inner-city projects. That rivalry is understandable and costly.

Earmarks are not the cause for our financial woes these days. When the White House uses the word "trillion" in such a casual manner, what damage will a few billion make?

The problem is the process itself. There is no debate on earmarks and most of the money goes to the longtime politicians who have managed to secure chairmanships. If you want to follow the money, then look to the chairman.

Earmarks are the exact opposite of transparency or accountability. That's the problem. But perhaps there is some light at the end of the spending tunnel. Pork projects are actually down the past couple of years, but even that assessment is subject to debate.

Every president, including the current one and his predecessor, comes into office pledging to end earmarks. And once elected, that promise is forgotten.

On the one hand, we'll hold Blunt and Carnahan to their word when it comes to earmarks. On the other hand, we may well suffer if those discretionary local projects are subject to the whims of whoever is in the White House.

You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

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