"Are American shrimp unruly and lacking initiative?" asked Senator McCain on the floor of the Senate last week. He was inquiring about the $1 million appropriation for the "Wild American Shrimp Initiative" included in the $388 billion omnibus spending bill passed by the lame-duck session of Congress.
The animal-friendly appropriations didn't end with shrimps. Far from it: there was $515,000 for "brown tree snake management" in Guam; $150,000 for the "Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program" at the Lady B Ranch in California; $167,000 for "Horn Fly" research in Alabama; $150,000 for "Fishing Rationalization Research" in Alaska; and $50,000 for wild hog control in Missouri.
Forget Missouri - with the unprecedented avalanche of pork-barrel spending coming down from Washington last week, we could use some wild-hog control in Congress.
Rarely in American history has a Congress been more fiscally irresponsible, and the Republican Party has no one to blame but itself. With this drunken spending spree, the Republicans have surrendered their traditional claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility.
They seemed to know what a mess they had made: a disconcerting number of the appropriations were dedicated to the study of bull...-well, let's just say the contemplation of fecal matter: $4 million for what a press release from Senator Shelby's office described as "important research" at an "International Fertilizer Development Center" in Alabama, $2.3 million for an "Animal Waste Management Laboratory" in Kentucky, $470,000 for "swine and other animal waste management research" in North Carolina, and $268,000 for "livestock waste research" in Iowa.
There was plenty of wasteful spending to spread around. Other absurd examples include $25,000 to develop a curriculum for the study of mariachi music in Nevada (apparently the actual studying will cost extra), $2 million for an unelaborated "kitchen relocation" in Fairbanks Alaska, $250,000 to celebrate Alaskan Statehood, $99,000 to "train students in the motorsports industry," $1.75 million for an organization known as "Parents Anonymous," and $100,000 for something called the "National Association of Promoting Success."
The "Contempt for the Taxpayer" award goes to Rep. William Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who had the gall to describe this festering smorgasbord as "a lean and clean package."
The cost of American government is now more than $20,000 a household, the federal budget deficit is more than $400 billion, and the combined total debt is more than $7 trillion. In this same lame-duck session, Congress also voted to raise the federal debt ceiling to $8.2 trillion. The federal government already pays $160 billion every year for interest on the national debt - a mind-boggling number that will nonetheless rise as interest rates climb.
At the time we can least afford congressional largess, the number of pork-barrel projects has risen dramatically - from under 2,000 toward the end of the Clinton years to an estimated 11,000 in the 2005 budget, at a cost of more than $25 billion to taxpayers.
"We're heading for a fiscal train wreck," says Heritage Foundation budget watchdog Brian Riedl. "The number of pork projects has quintupled under a Republican Congress...If you don't laugh you'll cry at the money they're spending."
How did it come to this? "Behind many of these projects is a campaign contribution," asserts Mr. Riedl. "Pork is a great way to raise campaign cash. These payments are bought and sold by lobbyists to the highest bidder...it is a corrupting process."
Where is the accountability for the conservative president who campaigned this year across the country pledging, "We've got to be wise about how we spend your money. We've got to set priorities and not overspend it" - but has so far failed to veto a single bill from Congress?
Democrats like Howard Dean are beginning to raise their rally flag around this issue. In a recent column, he writes, "Pell grants will become unavailable for 85,000 students that were receiving them...on the other hand the bill appropriates $2 million to buy a presidential yacht. Farmers lose over $400 million of soil conservation money. On the other hand, the bill funds the American Cotton Museum in Texas." You can already hear the campaign speech evolving. The fact is that if you compare government spending from the Clinton years to the current Bush administration and its Congress, the Democrats can now convincingly claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility.
This is evidence of the shifting ground in American politics. The Republican Party rose to prominence by representing a philosophy of smaller government and more individual freedom. That legacy is being sold down the river by this Republican Congress, as it separates words from actions and passes the multi-billion-dollar bill down to the next generation. As Mr. McCain asked in the conclusion of his remarks on the Senate floor, "Mr. President, where is it going to end? We have to face the facts, and one fact is that we can't continue to spend taxpayers' dollars on wasteful, unnecessary pork-barrel projects or cater to wealthy corporate special interests any longer. The American people won't stand for it, and they shouldn't - they deserve better treatment from us."