A Web-Wise Spin on the Pork Barrel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 1997; Page A15
For years, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has annoyed his colleagues with speeches against the venerable practice of pork-barreling -- spending taxpayers' money on hometown projects that give lawmakers something to brag on when the next election rolls around.
This year is especially embarrassing, because McCain for the first time has put his laboriously gathered pork research on the Internet (www.senate.gov/~mccain), where anyone can "scroll down and click on the pig" to access about 100 pages of items pointing at lawmakers all over the nation.
Taxpayers, as "Porky" discloses, will note that Senate appropriators have allocated "at least $180,000" so the National Center for Physical Acoustics can continue its program to develop "automated methods of monitoring pest populations."
The National Asian Pacific Center on Aging will get $260,000 to "link the Asian Pacific aging community with other services and organizations." And someone, somewhere is down for $50,000 "to initiate a demonstration project on kudzu as a noxious weed."
These are all Senate earmarks, so some could disappear in conference with the House, but don't count on losing many of them. After all, America clearly needs someone to tell the truth about kudzu.
As with many things in Congress -- blocking ambassadorial appointments and having lobbyists write legislation come to mind -- custom has made pork-barreling de rigueur, but it still looks really bad when someone shines a light on it.
For this reason, McCain's crusade hasn't won him a lot of friends, and his efforts to eliminate pork from pending appropriations bills have never prospered. At this point in the appropriations year, it is safe to say that this record of failure will remain unbesmirched for fiscal 1998.
Still, what McCain has put on the Web is a unique resource. Appropriations bills tend to be long and opaque, and a Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman acknowledged that staff members "usually aren't very cooperative" when outsiders call to ask about the origin of a particular item.
In other words, it's up to you to figure out what's going on. This can be fairly easy when appropriators "urge" the government to spend $800,000 to "assist in cataloguing and preserving Pennsylvania's library of the anthracite coal region."
But what about the Navy's apparent plans to spend $2.5 million next year on "freeze dried blood research?" (The legislation doesn't say where.) And some items come as a total surprise. "I can remember the shrimp aquaculture research center in Arizona," said McCain, who should have put in the order form for such an obvious bit of pork for his state but didn't. "I've been looking for those little shrimps swimming around the desert."
The only way to spot pork is to read the bills, which can take all night. McCain's staff makes the effort, but until "Porky," the only one who saw the research was McCain himself, who used it in speeches before his amendments to kill unnecessary spending were killed.
In one of this year's polemics, McCain complained about the establishment of "centers for the study of virtually every subject," citing the "East-West Center" and "North/South Center" for special mention.
"I would not be at all surprised to see in next year's bill funding for a North-by-Northwest Center," McCain summed up, "perhaps to include a banquet room honoring the late Alfred Hitchcock."
While several of McCain's colleagues have been known to take his name in vain, all sides confirm that Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is not one of them. In fact, in a floor speech this year, Stevens described McCain as "our watchdog," and suggested that the "1,000 amendments we did not approve" failed to survive partly because they couldn't pass the McCain smell test.
This magnanimity may pall now that the Web page is up, for it is clear from Porky that Stevens, in the time-honored tradition of past Appropriations Committee chairmen, has been doing great things for Alaska.
According to McCain's research, the Transportation appropriations bill alone may contain a dozen earmarks for Stevens's home state, including $400,000 for a "low Earth orbit satellite communication system at Anchorage," and $2 million for the Alaska Volcano Observatory to collect data from the Aleutian Islands.
"I saw him the other day, and he told me, `I like your Web page,' " McCain said. "Well, I thought: I hope you don't read it too carefully, Ted."
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