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Political News--June & July 06

The Best Pork Barrel Contributions Can Buy

Yahoo News, By Danielle Knight Mon May 22, 7:59 AM ET

 

The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota is internationally renowned for fighting cancer and other diseases. But lately it has been fighting a congressional "earmark."  {What’s wrong with the proper name “pork barrel”—jk.}

During the final negotiations over the FY 2006 transportation bill, Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, tacked on language that would dramatically expand a federal program and help a small railroad company in his state get a $2.5 billion government loan. The loan would allow the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad to build new track right past the clinic, which says it would jeopardize sensitive equipment and increase the risk of nearby hazardous spills at one of the state's most important businesses.

Thune says he's helping his state. But Steve Ellis, with the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, calls it the "granddaddy of all earmarks," given its large price tag. Earmarks like this are getting a lot of attention in Washington these days. Earmarks, an increasingly popular form of pork-barrel spending, are special state or local projects attached to federal legislation, often without congressional debate. Earmarks are perfectly legal, though many of the current congressional corruption investigations revolve around lawmakers who are suspected of giving them out in exchange for campaign contributions, meals, gifts, and lavish trips.

"Earmarks," says Ellis, "are the direct result of a corrupt process that encourages and rewards lawmakers who don't spend their time legislating ... but pulling money in million-dollar chunks back to their ... political patrons."

Senator Thune, who used to lobby for DM&E, says that expanding the rail company's existing 1,100 miles of track mainly in South Dakota and Minnesota into a 2,800-mile coal line will create tens of thousands of jobs. Any railroad can apply for these loans, he says. "This has national implications in terms of public benefit," Thune says. "It's about cheaper, cleaner coal."

It's true that other rail companies might benefit from the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program that Thune expanded from $3.5 billion to $35 billion. But the language Thune put into the bill was custom made for the DM&E line, says Sen. Mark Dayton (news, bio, voting record), the Minnesota Democrat who has taken the side of the Mayo Clinic. He and others question the rail company's ability to repay the loan--one of the largest federal loans ever given to a private company, he says. "It's a real perversion of the process and the public interest," says Dayton.

Kevin Schieffer, president and chief executive officer of the DM&E, says arguments against the project have no merit. "We are very solid financially," he adds. "The project has overwhelming support throughout our entire region."

The White House has tried to end the railroad loan program as an unnecessary giveaway to private companies. "In the event of a loan default, the federal government would be responsible for covering any losses, which could be significant," says a recent report by the Office of Management and Budget.

The railroad earmark dwarfs most pork projects, but it remains part of a skyrocketing trend. From 1994 to 2005, the number of earmarks more than tripled, while their cost shot up from $30 billion to $47 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.  {Given the frequency of duplicitous politicking, I wonder if the try was just show—jk.}

Distorted spending. Earmarks are sometimes approved to the detriment of other important federal spending, say pork opponents. The unprecedented increase has caused a decline in significant research and development budgets, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and often circumvents the normal process of competing for research grants. Fiscal conservatives are furious at the Senate for adding $17 billion to the president's recent war and hurricane relief spending bill. The increase is due to a number of earmarks, including a $700 million project to move a railroad track in Mississippi that had been recently repaired after the hurricane.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.

Earmarks are so intertwined with the corruption scandals on Capitol Hill that Rep. Jeff Flake (news, bio, voting record), an Arizona Republican, calls them the "currency of corruption." Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for doling out defense contract earmarks. As part of the Cunningham probe, federal investigators are now trying to figure out if other lawmakers, including House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, steered contractors to hire friends, family, or staff or solicit campaign contributions in exchange for earmarks. Lewis denies any wrongdoing.

And Rep. Alan Mollohan (news, bio, voting record), a West Virginia Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, is under scrutiny for giving millions in earmarks to groups staffed by his friends and business partners. Mollohan denies any wrongdoing.

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal public opinion poll, 39 percent of U.S. adults said prohibiting earmarks should be the No.1 priority of Congress this session. Congress approved minor curbs on earmarks as part of the lobbying reforms passed this year. The new rules would require bills and reports to include a list of their earmarks along with the names of the requesting lawmaker.  {How is publishing the author a curb???  “Curb” means “limit”.—jk}

But there's a hitch. More than 40 percent of earmarks will not be subject to these new disclosure rules, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The new regulations do not include pork directed at federal entities, such as the Department of Transportation. So earmarks, like the one Senator Thune included to expand the federal loan program that benefits his former client, would be exempt.

 


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