All The King's Earmarks

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Willie Stark would have had a good laugh.

Stark is the archetypal politician at the center of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men." Not so loosely modeled on Louisiana's Depression-era governor and senator, Huey Long, he embodies the essential grittiness of politics and its inevitable corruptions, large and small.

One morning last week, I went to see the new film version of "All the King's Men." (Sean Penn plays a somewhat over-the-top Willie Stark.) So Stark was on my mind later that day as I watched members of the House of Representatives debate how to stop themselves -- or, more accurately, how to appear to stop themselves -- from spending money on pet projects.

The subject was earmarking, a practice whose attractions Willie Stark would have instantly understood. Earmarking is a polite term for the federal slush funds available to lawmakers to direct as they see fit, currying favor with constituents and contributors.

Stark would have been a champion earmarker. "I'm going to build me the God-damnedest, biggest, chromium-platedest, formaldehyde-stinkingest free hospital and health center the All-Father ever let live," Stark vows in the book.

And he has no doubt what he plans to name his project: "I'm going to call it the Willie Stark Hospital and it will be there a long time after I'm dead and gone and you are dead and gone and all those sons-of-bitches are dead and gone."

And so Stark, as I said, would have found the congressional debate a hoot. Because this charade of earmark reform involved lawmakers forcing themselves to take credit for their earmarks -- in essence, engaging in the legislative equivalent of naming the hospital after themselves.

Under the new rule, some -- but not all -- earmarks will require that the sponsoring lawmaker be identified. Big whoop. The problem with the most egregious earmarks isn't that the public doesn't know who's behind them. It's that the patrons are completely unabashed about the pork they are pushing.

Exhibit A: Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens's tirade on the Senate floor against efforts to take away funding for his "bridge to nowhere."

Exhibit B: the entire state of West Virginia, crammed with the earmarked products of the Senate Appropriations Committee's senior Democrat. To wit, the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building and Courthouse in Charleston (not to be confused with the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building and Courthouse in Beckley); the Robert C. Byrd Expressway (not to be confused with the Robert C. Byrd Freeway or the Robert C. Byrd Bridge); the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center at Wheeling Jesuit University (not to be confused with the Robert C. Byrd Science and Technology Center at Shepherd University or the Robert C. Byrd Technology Center at Alderson-Broaddus College). "I don't care if you list the members who sponsor earmarks. I put out press releases on every one of them," Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in explaining how ineffective this change would be.

That didn't stop the House leadership from congratulating itself. "Today is an important day for the House as an institution," pronounced Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Perhaps, in the sense that it showed how resistant the chamber is to any deviation from business as usual.

So resistant, in fact, that the writers of large checks, also known as the House Appropriations Committee, greeted this minor incursion on their power with howls of outrage. They were being unfairly singled out for abuse, the appropriators bleated behind closed doors; the new rule would still let the tax writers and the authorizers get away with their special-interest shenanigans.

By all accounts, this indignation was heartfelt, in the "they do it too" way that a 6-year-old punished for popping someone on the playground is sincerely outraged that his friend wasn't busted for the same offense. Yet you have to question whether the canniest of the appropriators don't recognize how easily they got off.

It brought to mind the scene in "All the King's Men" in which the narrator, reporter-turned-fixer Jack Burden, ponders whether Stark really had been the gullible rube he seemed when the two first met in the backroom of Slade's pool hall.

Burden recalls his introduction: "Willie's hand gave mine three decorous pump-handle motions, and he said, 'Glad to meetcha, Mr. Burden,' . . . and then, I could have sworn, he gave me a wink. Then looking into that dead pan, I wasn't sure."

Years later, Burden tries to find out. " 'Well, Boss,' I demanded, 'did you or didn't you wink at me?' " Stark, for his part, is deliberately noncommittal. " 'Boy,' he said, and smiled at me paternally over his glass, 'that is a mystery. . . . Suppose I just had something in my eye?' " I wonder: Did the appropriators wink? Or was there just something in their eyes?

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