Senate Spending Secrets

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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Their arrogance is stunning. Senators Stevens of Alaska and Byrd of West Virginia are the acknowledged kings of pork-barrel spending. They bring billions of taxpayer dollars to their states to ensure their hold on power. But apparently, that’s not enough.They also want to make certain that you and I don’t see what they get away with. So secretly they tried to keep us in the dark.

Fiscal hawks in the Senate, led by Senator Coburn of Oklahoma, are sponsoring a bill to create a database that would keep track of government spending. You could search that database from your home and find out who got all that special-interest taxpayer largess.

That seems like useful information for citizens who would like to keep their eyes on their spend-happy representatives.

But what’s good for the taxpayers is not necessarily good for the politicians who ladle out our money, or the feeders at the government trough who get all those contracts and grants. The power brokers would rather the people not look over their shoulders.

The bill to create the database has sponsors from both parties, including Majority Leader, Bill Frist, and Minority Leader, Harry Reid. It has support from 100 conservative and liberal government-watchdog organizations. It was approved unanimously by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The measure was headed for a vote in the full Senate when suddenly it was derailed by unidentified senators. The Senate, it turns out, has a rule that lets any member delay a bill — without revealing his identity. It’s called the “secret hold.”

This mystery led to several days of speculation, but finally, Senator Stevens came forward. The next day Senator Byrd did, too.

Mr. Byrd has since lifted his hold, but Mr. Stevens hasn’t. Mr. Byrd said he wanted time to read the bill and try to improve it. Mr. Stevens, who is a member of the committee that held hearings but didn’t speak up at the time, now says he wants a cost-benefit analysis done before he makes up his mind.

Sounds fishy to me. I think these guys just don’t want us to see how they spend our money.

When the Democrats held power, I confronted Senator Byrd about his “Honorable” Robert Byrd Highway-type projects in West Virginia. His answer was as arrogant as he was, “I would think that the national media could rise above the temptation of being clever, decrepitarian critics who twaddlize, just as what you’re doing right here.”

“Twaddlize?” I asked.

“Trivializing serious matters,” he explained.

I persisted, “Is there no limit? Are you not at all embarrassed about how much you got?”

Mr. Byrd glared at me, “Are you embarrassed when you think you’re working for the good of the country?!”

As for Senator Stevens, last year, the congressional transportation bill included $450 million to build two bridges to little-populated parts of his state, Alaska. One of these “bridges to nowhere” would connect Ketchikan to a nearly uninhabited island. When Senator Coburn proposed that the money instead be spent to repair a bridge over Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Senator Stevens had a little tantrum. He stood on the Senate floor and said if his state’s loot was cut, he’d resign and “be taken out of here on a stretcher!”

Good! Senator Stevens, please go. I’ll help carry the stretcher.

The Senate shot down Mr. Coburn’s proposal 82-15. Big spenders stick together.

I’m skeptical of Senator Stevens’s demand for a cost-benefit study. Congress estimates it would cost $4 million to build the database and $2 million a year to run it — small potatoes next to the hundreds of billions Senators Stevens and Byrd spend on pork.

And the benefit? Can you put a dollar figure on the good that would result if the big spenders were inhibited because the people were watching them?

Maybe we wouldn’t need a user-friendly database if the government weren’t so big. But it is that big. So at least let’s make it visible. Let’s get rid of secret holds and secret spending.

Mr. Stossel is co-anchor of ABC News’ “20/20” and the author of “Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel — Why Everything You Know is Wrong.”

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