TCS Daily

From Dawn to Decade-nce

By Radley Balko - April 16, 2004 12:00 AM

The New York Times reported last weekend that a powerful member of the U.S. Congress recently secured $120 million in federal highway funds for a 200-foot high, mile-long bridge for his district that will connect a town of about 8,000 to an island with 50 residents. He found another $200 million for a bridge connecting a city in his district to a port that has exactly one regular resident. Those two projects alone account for more money than was earmarked in total for 41 states in the highway bill. "I stuffed it like a turkey," the congressman said of the bill.

Upon hearing that another lawmaker was recently named the top pork-barrel representative in Washington, this congressman said "I'd like to be a little oinker, myself. If he's the chief porker, I'm upset." Speaking at a luncheon, he explained why he'd secured so much pork for such wasteful projects. "If you don't do it now, when are you going to do it? This is the time to take advantage of the position I'm in."

He added, "If I had not done fairly well for my state, I'd be ashamed of myself."

He also said he'd support an increase in the federal gasoline tax to raise even more money for more projects.

By now, you've probably guessed that the congressman in question is Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the most notorious pork barrel spender in the history of the U.S. government.

Except it isn't.

It's Don Young, the Republican congressman from Alaska.

The coming November election will mark 10 years since the Republicans swept into power on a revolutionary platform that called for limited, transparent, and accountable government. Since then, the GOP has controlled the House of Representatives for all ten of those years, the U.S. Senate for eight of those ten, and the White house for the last three.

Rep. Young's pet projects represent perhaps the apex of the Republicans' wholesale abandonment of the principles and Contract With America blueprint that put them into power. The highway bill was perhaps the single most wasteful bill passed by a Congress that could very well be the most wasteful in history. Columnist Robert Novak pointed out that the 1991 highway bill -- the last passed under Democratic leadership -- had a little over 500 earmarks for "special projects." The 2004 bill has well over 3,000. That Young would stuff the bill with pork for himself, other powerful members of his party, and Democrats he'd need to push the bill through, then boast about it is telling of what it means to be a Republican these days.

As the ten-year anniversary of the Contract With America approaches, Republicans currently in power would do well to go back and reread the document. They've grown comfortable and complacent. They've succumbed to the very seductions and trappings of power that they ran and won against in 1994. They now control the White House too. And since the GOP began both passing the laws and signing them in 2001, the federal government has grown at rates unseen in nearly a half-century.

A few nuggets the GOP might want to mull over while celebrating 10 years in power:

  • House Speaker Dennis Hastert was asked by the Associated Press last spring what he felt were the greatest accomplishments of the 108th Congress. His answer? The $500+ billion prescription drug bill, the largest federal entitlement in forty years; and a $300 million federal contract for a Boeing plant in Illinois.

  • In 2002, Hastert also initiated a letter to President Bush to be signed by the entire Illinois congressional delegation, asking for the president's help in securing federal dollars for projects in the state. When Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald refused to sign, replying to Hastert that "just because a project is located in Illinois does not make it inherently meritorious," Hastert launched a public relations campaign against Sen. Fitzgerald. Due partly to pressure from leaders in his own party, Fitzgerald has decided not to run for reelection.

  • In 1997, then-Michigan Senator Spence Abraham -- who was elected in the 1994 GOP sweep -- wrote an op-ed in the Washington Times calling for the abolition of the Department of Energy. He also co-sponsored a bill in the senate to do exactly that. Today, Abraham heads the Department of Energy. In a pamphlet celebrating the DOE's 25th anniversary, Abraham wrote, "As we look ahead, I am optimistic that we will fulfill our responsibilities and our success will be a great contribution to our energy and national security for generations to come."

  • The Contract With America's first item called for drastic procedural changes in order "to restore fiscal responsibility to an out- of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses." Since the Republican takeover, real growth in federal outlays for the Department of Education have increased by 101%; Labor by 83%; HHS by 81%; and Commerce by 82%. All were departments Republicans had discussed eliminating entirely.

  • The GOP Congress and White House together have produced three of the five largest increases in discretionary spending in the last 40 years. Only the Johnson administration in 1966 and 1967 increased the size of government more than the Bush White House and GOP Congress have in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

  • The early GOP revolutionaries imposed an eight-year limit on serving as Speaker of the House. Just last January, the Republicans revoked that limit, voting to allow current Speaker Hastert to serve indefinitely.

  • The poster-boy for term limits in 1994 was Washington Rep. George Nethercutt. Nethercutt defeated House Speaker Tom Foley in the biggest upset of the 1994 election in a race that featured term limits as a centerpiece of the campaign, and painted Foley as the epitome of the entrenched Washington power-broker. But when it was time to step down in 1999, Nethercutt reneged on his term limit promise, and subsequently won new terms in 2000 and 2002. Nethercutt joins fellow GOP Reps. Tillie Fowler, Scott McInnis, Tom Tancredo, and Frank LoBiondo in recanting their term limits pledges.

  • Another centerpiece of the Contract With America was to put term limits on committee chairmanships, an effort to limit the influence and collected power of career politicians. In 2002, GOP Sens. Gordon Smith, Bob Smith and Pete Domenici initiated an effort to revoke those restrictions, too.

  • Writing for the Cato Institute, Chris Edward and Tad DeHaven note that as Congress was debating an already fattened Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriation bill last summer, the White House weighed in with concerns that the Congress wasn't spending enough.

The statement is riddled with complaints about "underfunded" programs and demands for "full funding" of new "initiatives." It requests that Congress increase funding on social programs with trite names, such as Parent Drug Corps, Compassion Capital Fund, and Steps to a Healthier US. The administration has rapidly expanded domestic spending, and this statement reveals the mushy liberal mindset at work behind the increases with little regard to taxpayer costs...

... The statement says that the administration is "disappointed" that the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will get only $1.8 billion, and that the Access to Recovery Treatment Voucher Program will get "only" $100 million. The statement demands that the Corporation for National and Community Service be "fully funded," else Congress "would deny thousands of Americans the opportunity to participate in national service."

  • Despite the free-spending Congress, President Bush has yet to use his veto in three years. You have to go back to John Quincy Adams in the 1820s to find a president more reluctant to strike down the excesses of the legislature.

In short, the Republicans have become the very picture of the arrogance and trappings of power that they defeated in 1994. Perhaps a decade or so in the minority will help them rediscover their principles.


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