Flower-Power Pork

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Will the Democratic-controlled Senate approve a $1 million earmark to celebrate Woodstock-era baby boomers, carved out of a bill funding health care and education? It will, because it is sponsored by New York's influential Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. It will, because they are promoting the pet project of a big-time Democratic campaign contributor.

Nevertheless, as the Senate began consideration of the Labor/Health and Human Services/Education appropriations bill yesterday, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed an amendment to eliminate the earmark. The $1 million would go to the performing arts center of the Bethel Museum in Liberty, N.Y., at the site of the original 1969 Woodstock festival. Coburn argues that a "taxpayer-funded Woodstock flashback" would cut into the government's Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program grants.

That fits a new approach in Coburn's crusade against earmarks. He has told his colleagues that their addiction to pork wastes money that otherwise would build bridges, regulate mine safety and litigate civil rights cases. All to no avail so far. The lawmakers still embrace pork and reject Coburn by the same big margins by which they passed the infamous Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" in the previous Congress.

Even by congressional standards of shamelessness, the Bethel earmark is extraordinary. "What Cooperstown is to baseball," says the museum's Web site, quoting from a New York Times story, "Bethel could be to the baby boom." Earlier this year, Bethel advertised a "Hippiefest" as a "return to the flower-powered days of the 1960s."

Bethel typifies the earmark epidemic because political insiders are often found pushing pork. The museum is funded principally by billionaire Alan Gerry's foundation, which has annual investment income of $24 million. Federal Election Commission records show that Gerry has donated at least $229,000 to political campaigns, and his wife, Sandra, has contributed $90,000 over the past 10 years (including $26,000 in the last election cycle to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Schumer). On June 30, the Gerrys gave the maximum $9,200 to Clinton's presidential campaign, three days after the two New York senators put the Bethel earmark into the Labor-HHS bill.

The same appropriations bill is packed with other funding earmarks that Coburn said could have helped children instead. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa earmarked $900,000 for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont put in $100,000 for the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. The two Virginia senators, Republican John Warner and Democrat Jim Webb, inserted $150,000 for the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

Coburn is after bigger game. He is trying to eliminate $3.7 million in grants to labor unions requested by Harkin and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Coburn also seeks to remove $1.7 million added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget to fund a Hollywood liaison to advise doctor dramas and $5.1 million for "audio visual integration" in the CDC's new communications and visitors center named for Harkin.

In the previous money bill before the Senate, funding Commerce, Justice and science, Coburn tried on Oct. 4 to redirect $2.5 million in earmarks -- mainly for museums -- to fund the prosecution of unsolved civil rights cases. That failed 61 to 31. On Sept. 12, Coburn lost, 63 to 32, in seeking to eliminate six out of 600 earmarks in the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations. These included a new baseball stadium in Billings, Mont. He was beaten 82 to 14 when he attempted to defer all earmarks until defective bridges are repaired.

Democratic party-line voting belies claims of a new climate on Capitol Hill. On the 61-to-31 Commerce vote, for instance, only two Democrats -- Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- voted against earmarks. But Coburn also was opposed by 17 Republicans (including Mel Martinez of Florida, the party's general chairman, and the top GOP members of the Appropriations Committee).

After his customary overwhelming defeat on the Transportation-HUD bill, Coburn blamed the Minnesota bridge failure on Congress: "We failed to make good decisions. We failed to direct dollars where they were needed most because this body is obsessed with parochial pork-barrel politics." Other senators hate it when the plain-spoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., talks that way, but they figure hardly anybody -- including the media -- is listening.

2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company