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May 3, 2006
A Step Back For Porkbusters

The effort to put an end to earmarks -- the technical term for pork-barrel projects in the federal budget -- hit a snag yesterday when the US Senate voted to keep such unrelated projects out of emergency spending legislation on hurricane relief and the Iraq war effort. In a related development, Robert Byrd vehemently opposed a modified versions of the line-item veto that he supported during the Clinton administration:

The Senate voted Tuesday to protect home-state projects added by some of its most senior members to an Iraq war and hurricane relief funding bill as the tide turned against efforts by spending hawks to strip them out. ...

The price tag of the bill, therefore, has grown to more than $108 billion, despite Bush's promise to veto any measure that exceeds his request of $92.2 billion for the war and hurricane relief and another $2.3 billion to combat avian flu. ...

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia led the Democratic assault on Bush's line-item veto idea, saying it would shift too much of Congress' cherished constitutional power of the purse to the executive branch and give the president a new club with which to threaten lawmakers. ...

"He could use this new leverage to squeeze members," Byrd said. "It is a weapon that the president could use to threaten and reward, and with the threat of that Damocles sword hanging over each member's head, he could expect to have his way on many issues."

Despite his vehemence Tuesday, Byrd supported the core idea when it was offered as a Democratic alternative to the tougher line-item veto law more than a decade ago.

The projects that got past Senate pork hawks like Tom Coburn were a $200 million bailout of Northrup Grumman for indemnifyng the defense contractor against losses that its insurers refuse to cover. Coburn faced stiff opposition from Trent Lott, the man who apparently wants to make a career out of defying voters on earmarks, and Thad Cochran. Both Republicans insisted that the government needed to replace the loss, even though Northrup made a 7.1% operating margin in 2005, up from 6.7% in 2004 and 5.6% in 2003. That represent $2.4 billion in profit, an increase from $2.3B in 2004 and $1.9B in 2003.

Why does a corporation that made $2.4 billion in profit need another $200 million from American taxpayers to cover a loss they've absorbed in that same year?

Rather than focus resources on the truly needy and on real emergencies, Lott and Cochran have manipulated the relief bill to stick money into Northrup's pockets. Perhaps folks from Lott's home state of Mississippi should ask themselves why Lott seems more concerned about the travails of a corporation that had its best year ever than those who had their entire lives wiped out by Katrina. No wonder Lott proclaimed himself "damned tired" of constituents who question his pork-barrel activities -- who'd want to keep explaining this?

The Pork Master also weighed in to protect his personal sinecures yesterday. Robert Byrd, who might be working on renaming his state Byrdsylvania to match the vast number of facilities named after him in West Virginia, warned against a line-item veto system that he supported under President Clinton. This system would not be a veto per se, but a requirement for any line item to which the executive objects to receive an individual up-or-down vote. It's weaker in that a simple majority can still pass the expenditure, but the potential exists for Congress to face thousands of such votes, given their proclivity for pork spending.

Byrd will have none of that. He needs to put his name on a few more bridges and museums before West Viriginians retire him, an event that could come quickly given his recent antics. He warned that presidents could use this power to hijack the projects of his political opponents -- a concern that somehow escaped Byrd when he supported this during a Democratic administration. It's just another hypocrisy from a man who had made a lifetime pursuit of it.

Until we get control of the spending process in Congress, politicians from both sides will exploit the power of taxation to ensure their re-election. Lott, Cochran, and Byrd all share the same addiction, and the American electorate continues to provide the fix through demands for increased federal power. Limiting government power is the only long-term solution to petty corruption and pork-barrel nonsense.

ADDENDUM: Congress has a rather narrow view of profit in a free-market society. When ExxonMobil makes 10.7% profit, they decry the "windfall profit" of a corporation. When Northrup Grumman makes 7.1%, they qualify for a bailout.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 3, 2006 5:31 AM

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