Pork Barrel Prevalent Despite GOP Vows
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 1999; Page A1
In 1995, the Republican revolution overthrew the Stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund. Over three decades, the federal program had provided more than $3 billion for nearly 40,000 park and recreation projects. But the battalion of GOP budget-cutters that stormed Congress that year killed it, arguing that the country's cash-flush states and communities ought to pay for their own swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and land acquisitions.
Now the fund may be coming back from the dead. On July 13, the House narrowly approved an amendment restoring $30 million for it, with 55 Republicans joining 157 Democrats in support. It was another budget season reminder that federal programs are still almost impossible to bury and that the GOP fire-breathers who once wore "Cut Spending First" pins and fought to abolish Cabinet agencies never quite revamped Washington's spending culture.
Four years after House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich's post-election prediction that GOP leadership would "radically transform the way government works by Easter," the federal government still does almost everything it did then. And while most Republicans still talk about taming the beast of big government and reining in runaway budgets, they have struggled mightily this summer to reconcile their lofty budget-cutting rhetoric with institutional and political pressures to spend.
Just last week, House Republicans tried to evade their own supposedly strict spending caps through "emergency spending" on routine programs such as veterans benefits and the census. GOP leaders also larded up one spending bill with 215 pork-barrel projects, funding everything from windstorm research to ship-bottom painting, and postponed another because they could not figure out how to keep it within their caps. Meanwhile, Republicans pushed their $792 billion tax cut by pleading a Washington spending addiction: If we don't send this money out of town, they argued, we'll surely spend it on wasteful programs.
"For those of us who came here with a zeal for limiting government, it's been a very frustrating 4 1/2 years," said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), one of the most outspoken conservatives in the historic GOP freshman class of 1994, which has already dwindled in the House from 73 to 49 members. "We've been losing the battles, again and again."
There are plenty of explanations for this. Republicans have taken political hits for taking on popular programs, especially big entitlements such as Medicare; their attacks on the Department of Education were widely viewed as attacks on education. Even the purest conservatives want to bring pork home to their districts. Huge projected budget surpluses have dampened the urgency for cost-cutting. And the legislative process has a structural bias against killing programs, because the voters and interest groups who benefit from them the most are usually the only ones to mobilize when they are in danger.
But some Republicans argue that in fact, they are quietly winning the war on spending. The $1.7 trillion federal budget has grown more slowly than inflation since the Republican takeover, although that is mostly due to post-Cold War reductions in defense spending. And the GOP nondefense budget bills approved so far this year include no overall funding increases and some modest cuts; if Congress sticks to its overall spending limits -- something many lawmakers say is doubtful -- further cuts could be on the way.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), another conservative in the class of '94, compares the federal budget to an ocean liner: Even tiny shifts in direction can produce a major difference in destination. Wamp says that after most voters blamed Republicans for the government shutdown in 1995, the revolutionaries realized that they had to start working within the system, that gradual change through compromise is better than electoral defeat through principle.
"We're not so dogmatic anymore. Most of us are more pragmatic," Wamp said. "We've made progress, at least holding the line on spending. But we can only do what's plausible."
Still, a "Return of the Living Dead" analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute suggests that the GOP's post-takeover declarations of a new era of budget austerity were vastly overblown. Since 1995, Cato found, spending has actually increased overall among the programs targeted for extinction in the original "Contract With America" budget, including hikes of 513 percent in school-to-work grants, 119 percent in the Goals 2000 education program, and 72 percent in bilingual education funding. The three Cabinet agencies on the GOP's 1995 hit list are alive and well; the Commerce Department's budget has grown by 40 percent.
Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), another budget hawk who came to Congress with the election of 1994, has been leading a lonely crusade to force his fellow Republicans to live within spending caps they approved in 1997. He has achieved modest success in the House this year, reducing GOP spending proposals for transportation, agriculture, foreign aid and the legislative branch by more than $1.5 billion. But he says the GOP chairmen of the Appropriations subcommittees -- the so-called College of Cardinals -- have stymied his effort for true budget reform.
Appropriators, he complains, like to appropriate. "Around here, it's still spend, spend, spend," Coburn said.
Congress has zeroed out more than 300 programs since 1995, but the overall savings have been only about $3 billion a year, less than one-fifth of one percent of the budget. Most of the terminated programs have been small and easy targets, like the $148,000 House barber shop or the $1 million River Confluence Ice Research program. This year, the House has proposed axing 24 more programs, including the $25 million Selective Service System that once administered the draft and the $35 million Triana satellite that is supposed to beam footage of Earth over the Internet. But it is far from clear whether the Senate and the president will agree.
In any case, as the Stateside Fund shows, killing a program does not always mean it stays dead. The notorious wool and mohair subsidy had a similar Lazarus-like experience after it was killed in 1996. Last year, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), yet another staunch conservative, stashed no-interest loans to mohair farmers into a budget bill, as well as a new National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.
Last week, Rep. Merrill Cook (R-Utah) tried to cut funding for the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, a $20 million line item suspiciously similar to the abolished Nuclear Energy Security Program. Environmentalists and taxpayer groups also blast the initiative as a back-door effort to resurrect gas-cooled reactors, a program Congress killed in 1995. But Cook said he encountered resistance from liberals and conservatives alike, even though the initiative is also pushing research into the discredited notion of "cold fusion."
"I was amazed to see the pressure on me not to do this, even from conservative Republicans," said Cook, who did extract a promise that House Republican budget leaders will try to reduce the funding in negotiations with their Senate counterparts. "I have to say, it's been very disappointing to see how hard it is to cut waste around here. The Republicans are doing better than the Democrats, but we don't have a lot to brag about."
This phenomenon has not stopped Democrats from portraying Republicans as heartless budget-slashers, a strategy that worked wonders after the government shutdown. Congress has cut funding for heating oil for the poor (20 percent) and legal services for the poor (31 percent) as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (38 percent) and National Endowment for the Humanities (36 percent). This year, Republicans have proposed additional cuts in public broadcasting, space exploration and foreign aid -- inviting further attacks from the minority.
"It's the velvet glove now instead of the hammer, but they still want to attack Medicare to pay for a rich man's tax cut," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee. "It's the same goals, just with better PR agents."
One major test should come after the August recess, when the House debates its most controversial budget bill, covering most health care, job training and education programs. The projected $1 trillion budget surplus -- and the various plans to use it for tax cuts, debt reduction or prescription drug benefits -- are all based on assumptions that Congress will obey the spending caps. But Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee handling the bill, has warned that he will have to cut spending 20 percent to obey his spending cap, and has argued for the cap to be lifted, even if it melts away some of the surplus.
The age-old dilemma for budget-cutters is that special interests always go to the mat for the programs that affect them; there are few votes or campaign contributions to be won by attacking any particular program. Sanford says that every day, constituents and lobbyists tell him how much they appreciate his efforts to slash federal spending. Then they get to the main reason for their visit: more funding for their pet project.
One current example is farm policy. In 1995, the Republicans passed the Freedom to Farm Act, an effort to replace a subsidy-based system that guaranteed farm incomes with a market-based system that reintroduced risk. But last year, plummeting prices devastated farmers, so the GOP agreed to a $6 billion bailout to avoid alienating them. This year prices are even worse; Democrats are pushing for a $9.9 billion emergency bailout, and Republicans have countered with a package that some analysts peg at more than $6 billion.
"There are still some true believers, but most of the budget-cutters have succumbed," said Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "They want to get reelected. They want to collect campaign cash. So nothing ever really dies."
Of course, the Stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund died, but its death may be short-lived. Governors, mayors, local officials and environmentalists are lobbying for it, and so is the Clinton administration. In the end, making budgets has always been about making deals, and even revolutionaries like Wamp now talk about working within the system.
"The Founding Fathers didn't want radical change to happen overnight," Wamp said. "That's why they set up the government with all these checks and balances, to make it very hard to change things. That's very frustrating to some of us. But we're still pushing the envelope."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company