Every Christmas, members of Congress scramble like elves to pass their favorite treasures into law before they recess for the holidays. Often, the lawmakers hide little presents to themselves in bigger bills. The surprises sometimes masquerade as housekeeping changes, euphemistically known as "technical amendments."
Several members recently were caught sneaking in funding for everything from ski lifts in Idaho to a center for the study of Belgian endive.
The bolder members make their proposals in the open, on the Senate or House floor. One of the boldest is New Jersey Democrat James J. Howard, the foreman of the Capitol Hill Pork Factory, better known as the House Public Works Committee. He spent the last weeks before Christmas bringing home the bacon -- scouring the Hill in search of ways to garner a few more road projects for his friends. He failed, but not for lack of heroic effort.
At first, he tried to create his own bill for these giveaways -- a "technical corrections" bill that rightfully should be saved for correcting typos and misspellings. The Senate rejected his "corrections."
Howard forged on to the House Appropriations Committee, which was working on the continuing resolution, the bill that keeps the government running until individual budgets are approved. You might think that's an unlikely place to find millions of dollars in road projects, but you can't keep a good porker down. Howard's aide told our associate Stewart Harris that the member of Congress tried the backdoor tactic only after the committee had let stand some pork-barrel projects sent over by the Senate. The committee looked like an easy mark, but it wasn't. The members said no to most of Howard's more questionable projects.
Down but not out, Howard then tried to tack his pet projects to the Budget Reconciliation Act, the bill that Congress hoped would slice billions from the deficit and settle the Wall Street jitters over the growing national debt. To no one's surprise, Howard's proposal was rejected.
Howard's intentions were generous. He wanted to divvy up $31 million in road projects for the districts of his friends in Congress. It was probably just coincidence that the friends were also senior members of the house Public Works Committee: John Paul Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.), Glenn M. Anderson (D-Calif.) and Bud Shuster (R-Pa.).
The system of Howard and his pals awards public works money based on political clout, not on merit. That isn't to say these particular projects aren't worthwhile, but the system doesn't allow for much weighing of priorities. Howard lavishes money on his friends while other urgent projects go unfunded.
Pork players argue that the money comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which is a separate pot of gold and doesn't count against the national debt. It is funded by gasoline taxes. What they don't seem to grasp is that many of the states would rather have the money go to needier projects.
For states that manage to delay the unwanted projects and spend money where it is really needed, Howard had a Christmas gift, too. He proposed language to force a state to spend money on projects recommended by Congress, even if the state officials know their needs better. Luckily for the states, Howard had no luck getting that passed, either.