It's a vision right out of the movie Field of Dreams. Build it, and they will come. But this time, it's no ballpark they're creating in the Iowa heartland; it's an indoor rain forest. "We don't have a Gateway Arch like St. Louis or a Space Needle like Seattle," says David Oman, chief administrator of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project. "Those are special things [that] put those locations on the map." Sound ridiculous to construct a rain forest in the middle of prairie country? It gets funnier: You're paying for a good part of it, to the tune of $50 million.
Senator Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is just one of the senior lawmakers who slipped pet projects, known as earmarks, into this year's mammoth Omnibus Bill. The main purpose of this legislation is to fund a number of federal agencies and departments, including the Departments of Justice, Education and Veterans Affairs. But in a time-honored tradition, heavyweights on Capitol Hill got plenty of pork into the bill with little notice and no real debate. "Actually, this Congress is setting records for its spending on earmarks," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Nearly eight thousand earmarks are shoehorned into the Omnibus Bill, totaling almost $11 billion, according to the nonpartisan organization Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The big spenders in this body have all but stolen the credit card numbers of every hard-working taxpayer," declared Senator John McCain on the floor of the Senate.
In this time of massive deficits, just where is our money going? Here's a sampler: $1.8 million will go to California for exotic pet diseases research; $2 million is being handed to the First Tee program, headquartered in St. Augustine, Florida, which uses golf to teach "life skills" to kids; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is getting $200,000 to educate schoolchildren about rock music; $325,000 will pay for a public swimming pool in Salinas, California; $175,000 is the price tag for a mural that will be painted on a flood wall in Cape Girardeau, Missouri; North Pole, Alaska (population: 1,646), will get $200,000 for recreational improvements. And on, and on.
"It's not chump change anymore. It's big money," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Arizona), a Congressional critic of pork-barrel spending. Consider that the cost of all earmarks for 2003 was a whopping $22.5 billion, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "That's almost $23 billion that cannot be spent on defense, homeland security, education, tax relief or deficit reduction," notes Brian Riedl, federal budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
If earmarks had to be voted up or down on their own merits, many wouldn't pass muster. But once they're attached to a large bill that funds vital functions of the government, they're hard to destroy. "Often they're just added at the end, buried in a bill that's three feet high," says Flake. Even if the pork gets noticed, most legislators won't vote down an entire bill just to kill a few projects. "You risk being accused of shutting down the government, or denying funds for AIDS, or whatever else the bill would have provided," says Mann of the Brookings Institution.
And the number of earmarks has exploded in recent years. In contrast to the 8,000 in the 2004 Omnibus Bill, there were about 2,000 earmarks in all of the spending bills in 1998. Technology is partly to blame, says David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste. A member of Congress "can just fill out a form online, send it to the Appropriations Committee, and pretty much get an earmark."
The process is tilted toward members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. It's no coincidence that Alaska, home state of Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican, ranks third in the money it gets from the bill's earmarks, although -- next to Wyoming -- it's the nation's least-populated state.
Then there's Sen. Patty Murray (D., Washington), another member of the committee, who helped secure $373 million in earmarks for her state. This includes $1 million for a "vehicular flywheel project" that benefits a Seattle alternative energy firm. In fact, Seattle alone gets more than the combined amount for 22 states.
Robert Byrd (D., West Virginia), the Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member and former chairman, still manages well despite being in the minority party. West Virginia's rank in the bill is seventh. "It's pretty much a dead heat between the two parties" as to who gets the most money from earmarks, says Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy and communications at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Ask the politicians about the pork they're getting, and many just shrug. Senator Grassley has conceded that $50 million for the Iowa rain-forest project is "not a spit in the ocean." But he added, "if this money wasn't spent in Iowa, would it be spent in West Virginia or Alaska because they have powerful Senators on the Appropriations Committee? I'm kind of embarrassed [when] I end up helping other states, but I don't help my own state."
Grassley went on to praise the rain-forest project as an educational resource and job creator.
His colleague Senator McCain is pushing a rule change that would shine a spotlight on earmarks. Co-sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold (D., Wisconsin), the measure would allow every Senator to object to a specific item of pork and, if it is not approved by at least 60 members, yank it from the bill. "We need to change the way we do business," McCain says. "If I sound angry and upset, it is because the people I represent are angry and upset."
Jeff Flake has come up with his own answer: He refuses to request earmarks for his district. "Most of my constituents understand," he says. "They're sick of this spending spree."
Others on Capitol Hill might get on board if they attend a seminar on the federal budget at the University of Akron in Ohio titled "Exercise in Hard Choices." They have reason to show up -- after all, they earmarked $500,000 for it in the Omnibus Bill.