Congress has its own version of the old quack-and-walk definition of a duck: If it looks like pork and smells like pork, it's actually an essential public works project.
In our usual suspicious way, we spotted several notably porcine projects in the Transportation Department appropriations bill that recently cleared the House. The projects are not necessarily useless. But classic pork-barrel tactics were used to fund them. When Appropriations Committee members failed to persuade the Public Works and Transportation Committee and its chairman, Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), to authorize the funds, money was taken from the general fund. That means the expenditures will further swell the federal deficit.
Our associate Stewart Harris called the sponsoring members and asked whether they didn't think the way the projects were lobbied and horse-traded smacked of the old pork barrel.
We should have known better. While most members of Congress would willingly define a pork-
barrel project as the useless expenditure of public funds for purely political purposes, none would admit that their own construction items were cooked up just to please the folks in the home district. Here are some typical exchanges:The $5 million down payment for improvements on a state road and bridge to Blount Island near Jacksonville doesn't fit the pork profile at all, according to a spokesman for Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.). The project, which may cost an additional $10 million to complete, will give the Marine Corps better access to the island so it can be used for bigger things, like a berthing facility.
But some port inspectors we contacted were skeptical of the alleged urgency of the project. They said that if the Marines had considered the access improvement vital, they would have paid for it out of their own budget. The critics also noted that the money will add to the deficit because it is coming from general funds -- unlike most highway projects, which are authorized by the Public Works Committee and paid for out of the gasoline-tax trust fund. Two million dollars for a lane-widening project on U.S. 101 near Prunedale, sponsored by Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), doesn't classify as pork either, according to a Panetta aide. As proof, he noted that the California transportation department considers the widening so crucial that it will finance 20 percent of it. The project will cost an estimated $58 million to complete, and the money will also add to budget deficits because it will come from the general fund. The closest to an admission of political consideration came from the office of Rep. Carl C. Perkins (D-Ky.), who sponsored a $2.5 million road widening between Prestonsburg and Paintsville in the "family district" represented by Perkins and his late father, Carl, since 1949. A Perkins aide was proud that his boss -- a second-term congressman -- had garnered the project for the home folks and suggested that the Transportation Department also plays politics in the way it doles out the gasoline-tax money.
Perkins' project is expected to cost $78 million more to complete, and also will come out of the general fund.