A Revolting Look at the Congressional Pork Process

Today’s theme is pork. I suppose we can thank the folks at Harper’s for getting the ball rolling. They’ve got a nice cover story and an nicer cover illustration on the subject — alas, only the latter is on-line. Some excerpts:

There was no time to produce a clean copy, so the version of the omnibus bill that Congress voted on was a fourteen-inch-thick clump of papers with corrections, deletions, and additions on virtually every page. Handwritten notes peppered the margins… [T]he omnibus bill came to a vote before the full House some sixteen hours later… For the legislators who approved it — by a margin of 344–51 in the House and 65–30 in the Senate — reading the 3,320-page bill before the vote would have been a mathematical impossibility.…

As approved at the appropriations meeting, the Foreign Operations bill had contained a mere nine earmarks. The omnibus measure, which was completed after two feverish days of work, allocated money for 11,772 separate earmarks. There was $100,000 for goat-meat research in Texas, $549,000 for “Future Foods” development in Illinois, $569,000 for “Cool Season Legume Research” in Idaho and Washington, $63,000 for a program to combat noxious weeds in the desert Southwest, $175,000 for obesity research in Texas. In the end, the bill’s earmarks were worth a combined total of nearly $16 billion — a figure almost as large as the annual budget of the Department of Agriculture and roughly twice that of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was the biggest single piece of pork-barrel legislation in American history.

Of who added these grants, no public record exists. Except in rare cases, members of Congress will refuse to discuss their involvement in establishing earmarks, and the appropriations committees have a blanket rule against commenting. Often it is difficult to discern even who is receiving the funds: earmarks are itemized in bills but generally without disclosure of the direct recipient — just a dollar amount, destination, and broad purpose.…

Naturally, the emergency, support-the-troops, wave-the-flag defense appropriations are among the best vehicles for pork:

Congress, taking advantage of wartime support of national defense spending, is using the military’s budget to steer billions to pet projects that apparently have little to do with Iraq or the ongoing war on terrorism, according to congressional documents, government budget officials, and watchdog groups.

The projects range from an unneeded warship and a seriously flawed cargo plane the Pentagon tried to cancel to millions each for a Mississippi wastewater treatment plant, a Nevada fire training station, and a Texas research hospital, the documents show.

Molly Ivins shows how brazen the kickbacks have become in this brand of beltway soccer, by using the example of Representative Duke Cunningham, of the House Defense Appropriations Committee:

In , [Cunningham] sold his house in Del Mar, a very upscale town north of San Diego. The buyer was Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor, who paid $1.675 million. Wade later resold the house at a $700,000 loss.

Now, either this makes Wade the only person in recent history to lose money on a San Diego real estate deal, or the guy paid way too much for the house.

The deal is now under investigation by a grand jury. Cunningham in turn used the money he made from the Del Mar deal to buy a $2.55 million home in Rancho Santa Fe.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Cunningham is living, rent-free, aboard a 42-foot yacht named the Duke Stir, which belongs to the said same Mitchell Wade. , Wade’s company, MZM Inc., has received $163 million in defense contracts.

When lobbyists aren’t bribing legislators to get their hands on your money directly, they’re lobbying for preferential tax treatment, or for beneficial changes to the multitude of laws that can make or break a large company.

They’d be fools or angels not to, since a small bribe is a lever that can move mountains of other people’s money or can tilt the playing-field of a whole industry in favor of one company or another. More and more, companies are finding their investments in politicians to be those that give the highest returns.

Legislators are like the mamma bird hovering over the nest with a gullet full of chewed up worms to give away. The lobbyists are like the baby birds, greedy and amoral and relentless. We’re the worms.