Porcine Brothers Empty the Trough

Article excerpt

Democratic and Republican leaders are breathing mere easily after passing a heavily debated $520 billion spending bill. There were concessions on both sides.

Glorious it wasn't, but then rear-guard actions seldom are. They tend to be scrappy and confused engagements that buy time for maneuvers elsewhere. A good commander will talk them up, though -- good for morale, you know -- but all too often he'll make inflated claims. If the commander had exercised more foresight the defensive ploy might never have been needed in the first place. And that's what Democratic and Republican leaders were about in the wake of passing a $520 billion catchall spending bill. Neither side got what it wanted, but they all secured enough bits and pieces to claim victories of sorts. Hey, fella, it ain't a perfect world.

Both sides entered the spending clash with one thought in mind: to avoid a fight they couldn't win and to give a bit here to gain something there. President Clinton got his $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, but had to concede a package of reforms for the agency, including market-based interest rates for IMF loans, more transparency in the body's decision-making process and speedier repayments. He got his claim to 100,000 extra teachers, but failed to win a hefty down payment on a massive new school-construction program, so there may be nowhere to put them. The GOP got nearly $7 billion in extra funding for the Pentagon, the first serious increase in military spending since the 1980s. And overall, Republicans managed to keep discretionary spending -- it represents about one-third of the entire federal budget -- at the same level as last year.

Call it a draw, then, allowing each side to sustain a minimum amount of political damage; boast a little; and fight another day for tax cuts (if you're a Republican) and healthcare reform (if you're a Democrat). That is a point emphasized to angry conservatives in the Republican caucus by their own former bomb-thrower-in-chief, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "If you can't work together, if you can't get 218 votes here, if you can't close down a filibuster in the Senate, if you can't get the president's signature, then what are you going to do?" he taunted his ideologues.

But there were losers in the spending bill: the noncombatants, i.e., taxpayers, who yet again were the victims of a business-as-usual mentality on Capitol Hill that saw billions of dollars earmarked in special-interest handouts, corporate and academic giveaways and federal boondoggles. Even the political pork king himself, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the lawmaker who once said he wanted to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry, was startled by the free-for-all. Maybe he wasn't an early-enough worm this time.

For all the highfalutin talk of strategy and tactics, of filibusters and threatened government shutdowns, there was a feeding frenzy in Washington -- and this time it wasn't the media who were chomping. Never before have so many snouts managed with such alacrity to feed from the same trough. "Where I come from we call this a `pig picking' -- 40 pounds of pork and everybody trying to pull off a piece.... In this town, somebody finds 50 cents laying on the floor and they run out and spend $2," says conservative Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Pork always has been a bipartisan issue -- Republicans want it and so do Democrats, and they proved it again. As George Wallace contended 30 years ago, there's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties when the whiff of a pig roast is wafting down congressional corridors.

The think tanks around town still are trying to identify all the slices of fatback, head cheese and pig ears larded into the omnibus bill -- all 40 pounds and nearly 4,000 pages of it. According to Thomas Schatz, president of the taxpayer watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste, the omnibus spending bill is a "national disgrace" because it is "full of special-interest projects that will cost taxpayers billions. …