Republican Hypocrites: GOP Budget Cutters Are Hawks - until It Comes to Trimming Their Own Pork

By Niedowski, Erika | The Washington Monthly, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Republican Hypocrites: GOP Budget Cutters Are Hawks - until It Comes to Trimming Their Own Pork


Niedowski, Erika, The Washington Monthly


In March, 11 rank-and-file house Republicans -- the kind with revolution running through their veins -- bolted their party to defeat a measure increasing committee budgets by more than $20 million. At the time, Oklahoma sophomore Steve Largent said the vote was a matter of fiscal conscience. Mark Souder of Indiana declared that Republicans hadn't been sent to Washington to increase spending. And Arizona's Matt Salmon claimed that the dissenting group, which included Lindsey Graham and Bob Inglis of South Carolina, wanted to "inject some courage" into the Republican leadership. "The GOP," he insisted, "must resist the temptation to return to the tax-and-spend ways of the Democrats."

What these budget-balancing cops on Capitol Hill didn't say, though, was that they too had recently asked the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars for parochial projects -- in essence, for the very pork they have consistently paraded against. Indeed, only one month earlier, Salmon had requested $130 million from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for a light-rail line in his district, while Souder had sought $122 million for highways. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, another defector, put in for $594 million for his constituents in western Michigan. And Graham and Inglis, who once compared deficit spending to alcohol dependency, asked the chairman of the Interior subcommittee of Appropriations to quadruple President clinton's budget request for an upstate conservation project to $6 million.

If these were the most conspicuous ideological flip-flops, they were not the most brazen. A month after the vote, former Seattle Seahawks football star Steve "fiscal conscience" Largent, who chastised Speaker Newt Gingrich for backing off tax cuts during budget negotiations, endorsed a tax increase on licensed sportswear and souvenirs to pay for a new Seahawks stadium. What was normally taboo for the congressman suddenly became for the Hall of Fame receiver "an innovative solution to a tough funding problem."

Of course, pork-barrel spending and fiscal hypocrisy are as old as the legislative branch itself: Abraham Lincoln spent much of his single term in the House trying to finagle money for river and harbor projects in Illinois. And, more recently, when Democrats were in power, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd diverted $1 billion to West Virginia in less than two years, including $75 million to rebuild a radio telescope. But this GOP Congress was supposed to be different. When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, for the first time in four decades, Gingrich announced that the federal government was going on a diet. The historic change, he wrote in his Contract with America, meant the end of government that is "too big" and "too easy with the public's money."

Yet now, even as Republicans celebrate the balanced budget agreement they reached with President Clinton in May, some are already gorging on pork. Sen. Phil Gramm, who denounced the budget plan and his party for not cutting spending enough, introduced a $16 million program to combat fire ants in Texas. And Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi -- who won $1.3 billion in 1995 for a helicopter carrier ship the Navy hadn't requested -- reportedly threatened the Navy with retribution earlier this year for not finding a shipbuilding contract for his hometown yard. Even a supplemental appropriations bill to provide emergency relief to flood victims nationwide this spring was polluted with pork: $21 million for, among other things, an alternative fuel shuttle bus fleet at Yosemite National Park; $12.6 million for completion of the William H. Natcher Bridge in Kentucky (named after the frugal former congressman); $2.5 million for digital maps in California's San Joaquin Valley; and $250,000 to replace salmon fry killed during an April snowstorm in New England.

One of the most glaring symbols of the revolutionaries' abandonment their fiscal fanaticism is the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New Deal-era agency that, after 60 years, still enjoys an annual $100 million federal subsidy for its non-power operations. …

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