Rolling Out the Barrel to the Tune of $10 Billion

By Shailagh Murray
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Oink, oink. Here comes another spending bill.

The Senate will consider this week a $106.5 billion supplemental appropriations package, ostensibly to cover emergency war and hurricane-recovery costs. But this being an election year, senators couldn't help themselves. They added about $10 billion in unrelated items, otherwise known as pork.

Extraneous provisions were supposed to be on the wane, as lawmakers attempt to show fiscal restraint and clean up the "earmark" process of stuffing narrow, often unvetted projects into bills, often at the behest of the same lobbyists and special interests who ply campaign coffers.

Drawing special scorn from watchdog groups and fiscal conservatives such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is $700 million to move a railroad line along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. Critics say the project is a gift to developers and casino interests, but it has powerful allies: Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran and Sen. Trent Lott, the former majority leader, both masters of the earmarking process, and both of Mississippi.

In a rare elaboration, the Senate bill explains that the rail line "is vitally important to numerous Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama industries and essential to the successful operations of major Gulf of Mexico ports."

The package also includes $4 billion in assistance to help farmers and ranchers affected by recent "hurricanes, drought, flood, wildfire and other natural disasters" -- in other words, every calamity that goes along with the agriculture business. It adds $12.5 million in drought relief.

The Federal Highway Administration would receive nearly $600 million, including to repair the Kuhio Highway in Hawaii. AmeriCorps would receive $20 million, and $2.3 billion would go to combating avian flu. The Senate bill also tacks on $650 million in port security enhancements.

President Bush's original emergency request totaled $92.2 billion, and the House bill came in just under that figure, at $91.9 billion. Under both packages, the military would receive $67.6 billion for procurement, personnel, operations and maintenance, and other costs, mostly related to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. An additional $4 billion would go to foreign diplomatic programs, and about $19 billion would be funneled to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

The Senate bill includes the same amount of military and foreign affairs funding, but boosts hurricane relief to $27.1 billion, along with the other extras.

Conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, intend to highlight the special projects in a news conference today, and sparks are expected to fly on the floor this week, as conservative Republicans and politically minded Democrats gang up on the Senate bill as excessive.

Much Ado About Lowering Gas Prices

There's little Congress can do to halt rising gas prices. But that only fuels lawmaker hysteria.

"Republicans are sending a strong signal to would-be gasoline price gougers that they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," a GOP news release thundered yesterday. The release explained that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had asked Bush "to utilize the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department to take action against any company or individual responsible for price gouging."

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) announced new hearings on energy prices, lamenting that "the high cost of gas and other fuels is straining our wallets." Barton's press release lists all the provisions in last year's energy bill that support renewable fuels and alternative technologies, but omitted the various oil industry incentives that the legislation also included.

Not to be outdone, Democrats scheduled two news conferences for today. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said her party is "working to lower gas prices now," although the laundry list of steps she offered would take a while to kick in -- including rolling back oil subsidies, tax breaks and royalty relief, and increasing production of alternative fuels.

Too Much and Not Enough in Lobbying Bill

On Thursday in the House, look for a much closer vote than the Senate's recent 90-8 margin when representatives take up a bill to tighten lobbying practices. House members are divided on the subject, and good-government groups are attacking the changes that GOP leaders have made in hopes of securing enough votes for passage.

The House proposal would suspend privately funded travel for lawmakers through mid-December, and it would require lobbyists to report more frequently on some activities. But the bill that appears headed to the floor would drop a proposal to require lobbyists to report more details about their fundraising efforts for candidates.

House leaders say the bill would take important steps toward lobbying reform. But the watchdog group Democracy 21 yesterday decried the "so-called ethics and lobby reform bill that fails badly to meaningfully address the still-unfolding ethics scandal in Washington."

Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this column.

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