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Congress proves itself unable to cut back on pork

WASHINGTON—Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, vowed Thursday to resign from the Senate if his fellow lawmakers followed through on threats to cancel spending on a $230 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska that was stuck into a pork-filled highway bill earlier this year.

The bridge, longer than the Golden Gate, would cross from Ketchikan (pop. 8,000) to Gravina Island (pop. 50), replacing a seven-minute ferry that connects the town with the regional airport. Its main critic, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., argued that the bridge money is enough to buy each island resident a Lear jet.

The bridge, and Stevens' success in preserving it, illustrates a trend in Congress, where lawmakers lard spending bills with pet projects worth tens of millions of dollars.

Many of them are obscure, such as $1 million to research household plants in Utah's desert climates. Many are popular with lawmakers' constituents, such as $500,000 for an Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle or a museum parking lot in Omaha, Neb.

Such earmarks are legion; there were some 6,300 costing some $22 billion in this year's highway bill alone. With only a few exceptions, every one of the 535 lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate works hard to insert local projects into spending legislation. Many consider it their duty. A handful consider it waste.

In the great red sea of government deficits, these pork-barrel projects amount to mere bucketsful while hundreds of billions of dollars for tax cuts, the Iraq war and a new prescription-drug plan for seniors have sent the federal budget deficit through the roof. It totaled $317 billion in fiscal 2005, which ended Sept. 30.

But not until Congress appropriated $62 billion to pay for the Gulf Coast devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did some lawmakers began seriously to consider cutting spending. Politically, however, the task is proving virtually impossible.

Congress illustrated this week that it's incapable of reducing the budget by medium or even bite-sized chunks, let alone mopping up hundreds of billions of dollars of red ink.

House Republican leaders this week conceded that they didn't have the votes to slow the growth of government by even $50 billion over five years. Most of their proposed cuts came from anti-poverty programs—increases in military spending were left untouched—and moderate Republicans and Democrats refused to go along.

Senators overwhelmingly rejected Coburn's solo effort Thursday to eliminate pork projects in Rhode Island, Nebraska and Washington. But when Coburn suggested that the $230 million in Alaska be redirected to rebuilding a bridge in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, that prompted a spirited defense from Alaska's senators.

"If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I'll resign from this body," said Stevens, a pugnacious Alaskan who's held his seat for 37 years.

The main force behind the bridge was Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who once declared that critics of the span could "kiss my ear!" But on Thursday it was Stevens and fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski who defended it.

They argued that Gravina Island offers the only land in the area that could be developed because the remainder of the region is federally owned.

"It's a bridge to the future of the people of Ketchikan," Murkowski said.

The Senate voted 82-15 to defeat Coburn's amendment and save the bridge.

Even a Senate attempt to reject cost-of-living pay increases for members of Congress got a cool reception from acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "Symbolism doesn't pay tuition bills," Blunt said.

To be sure, eliminating pork and forgoing raises are little more than symbolic gestures. Even a $50 billion reduction over five years would do little to dent the $2.5 trillion federal budget. Even if lawmakers scrapped all $22 billion in pork "earmarks" from the highway bill, the final savings would total only about $10 billion because so much of the money is guaranteed to states through complicated federal formulas.

Longtime pork buster John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, conceded that earmarks are negligible expenses in the vast federal budget.

"But it's so symbolic," he said. "If you're not willing to impose fiscal discipline, how can you look at serious aspects like entitlements and defense and other areas that need to be scrutinized if we're pork-barrel spending all the time. It's a mater of credibility."

Not that the budget is impenetrable. Every year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, list billions of dollars in possible savings. Their suggestions range from reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 12 to 11 (a five-year savings of $3.5 billion) to replacing the $1 bill with a coin ($500 million a year saved).

The CBO has suggested eliminating wealthier communities from the Community Development Block Grant program for a savings of $4.3 billion over five years.

President Bush has proposed a number of spending cuts that nonpartisan watchdog groups endorse, including changes in agriculture programs that would save $2.8 billion over five years.

But for each proposed cut, a vocal constituency defends it. And in a Congress where lawmakers often have to go along to get along, the path of least resistance is simply to vote for the money.

"We've known for years that there are some easy things on paper," said Keith Ashdown, the vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But it's politically hard to limit the budgetary footprint of the federal government. Any item you try and cut, you're going to tick off an 800-pound gorilla that fights with a sledgehammer."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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