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Pet Projects Unleashed in Spending Bill

Though Bush labeled the domestic package restrained, a record $15.8 billion is earmarked for such items as berry research.

November 24, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have labeled the $388-billion spending bill they are preparing to submit to President Bush as bare-bones. But they found $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, $1 million for the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss., and $75,000 for the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wis.

Although Bush lauded the massive measure for restraining domestic spending, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, estimated that the more than 11,000 pet projects tucked into the bill totaled more than $15.8 billion -- a record.

"Here we go again," protested Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of pork-barrel spending.

While such spending is as old as Congress, the number of projects in the bill underscored the political realities facing policymakers who seek to rein in outlays. Even though the last election is barely over, Democrats and Republicans alike are looking ahead to the 2006 congressional vote.

And even though the 2005 Congress will be more Republican than the current one, the president's spending priorities aren't going to be the same as those of more parochial-minded legislators.

"Lawmakers who say the budget is too tight and there is no place to cut should look in the mirror at their own pork projects," said Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The projects were included in the giant bill as other programs were cut. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, lost about $340 million from 2004. The clean-water revolving loan fund, which provides states with low-interest financing for such things as rehabilitating aging sewage plants and minimizing raw sewage overflows, was cut by 19%.

The House was scheduled to clear the way today for the bill to be sent to Bush. But the vote was postponed until early next month after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) protested Republican leaders' failure to give lawmakers enough time to read bills like the big spending bill.

In the rush to pass the bill Saturday, Democrats objected to a provision that would have given the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees or their representatives access to individuals' income tax returns. Republicans said they did not intend to undermine the privacy of tax returns. The Senate deleted the language and awaited similar action by the House.

Bush is expected to sign the measure, which provides funds for a wide range of agencies for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Taxpayer watchdogs say the bill's pork raises questions about Congress' commitment to fiscal discipline.

"If Congress cannot make the easy decisions by eliminating unnecessary earmarks, like $200,000 for the Aviation Hall of Fame or $100,000 for the Punxsutawney [Pa.] Weather Museum, there is very little hope for Social Security or tax reform," Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, said.

Alaska once again appeared to be one of the biggest beneficiaries. The bill was the last one shepherded through the Senate by Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who must give up the gavel because of Republican term limits on committee heads.

Among his last acts, he obtained $150,000 for the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage -- a project an aide said included building a fence "so the moose will quit eating the vegetation." The bill also includes $10 million for the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board and $1.8 million for berry research at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. A Stevens spokeswoman said both projects were important to the state's economy.

Alaska has ranked No. 1 in per-capita spending for lawmakers' pet projects in the years that Stevens has chaired the committee, according to the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste.

Stevens is expected to be succeeded by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). Asked about the money for the B.B. King Museum in his state, Cochran said in a statement: "The federal funding is a small part of the total cost of the museum. It will be a national asset that helps Americans understand the importance of the blues and its influence in our society."

In the House, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) hopes to succeed Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.) as Appropriations Committee chairman next year. He said he secured about $48 million for projects in his district, from $350,000 for the San Bernardino County Museum's paleontology and community outreach programs to $1.6 million to help relocate ranching families in the Mojave National Preserve.

The bill includes $311 million for the construction of a federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, about $59 million to begin construction of a rail line from Downtown L.A. to the city's Eastside and about $23 million to continue deepening the Port of Los Angeles.

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