Politics & Policy

Pack Mules for Pork Projects

At war with pork, too.

The president has vowed to veto the $124 billion Iraq-war funding bill emerging from Congress this week, and veto it he should. Not only would it set a date for the deliverance of Iraq into the hands of our enemies, but it’s also loaded down with over $20 billion in special projects for every member of Congress whose vote was needed to pass it. After the veto, when Congress quits playing politics and actually funds the troops, will it strip out the unnecessary spending? 

#ad#Let’s look at how the spending got there in the first place. In order to get antiwar Democrats to vote for another cent for the war in Iraq, the Democratic leadership had to include a timetable for withdrawal in the latest war supplemental. But in order to get conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats to support a timetable, they had to bribe them with billions of dollars of pork.

Conservative Democrats from rural districts got $3.5 billion in agricultural “disaster” relief — relief upon which their districts’ farmers are chronically dependent. Members from states like Illinois got $650 million to shore up their states’ mismanaged children’s health-insurance programs. Members from the Gulf region got $1.3 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, even though that agency’s decades of incompetence, which did not derive from any lack of funding, drowned New Orleans. And on, and on.

Thus the Democratic leadership, by bribing conservative Democrats into supporting a timetable for withdrawal, jacked the price of the bill up from the president’s request of $103 billion to the current $124 billion. Apparently they did it just to show that they could — the president had already indicated that he would veto any bill that included a timetable. “It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you start to plan withdrawing,” he said yesterday. “If we were to do so, the enemy would simply mark their calendars and begin plotting how to take over a country when we leave.”

Bush has enough votes in the House and Senate to back him up. Three weeks ago, 154 House Republicans signed a letter to the White House saying they would vote to sustain a veto because of “the extraneous and excessive non-security related funds contained within [the spending bill.]” And Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal date “a highly objectionable feature of this bill,” and said, “That’s why the president’s going to veto it, among other reasons.”

All this means that, after the veto, the Democrats will have to pass a funding bill without a withdrawal date or else pass no funding bill at all. The latter won’t happen. To put it mildly, the political costs of cutting off troops in the middle of combat operations would be prohibitive. The goal for conservatives, then, should be to pressure Republicans to stay united on both the military and the spending fronts as Congress starts to craft a second bill.

Most of the tough negotiations will take place over which of the vetoed bill’s remaining military provisions are to be included in the new bill. In this context, the temptation to trade votes for pork projects will be just as powerful as it was during the previous round, only this time there is a danger that Republicans will be more susceptible than Democrats.

Why? According to one House leadership aide’s estimates, 40 to 50 antiwar Democrats will not vote for any bill that funds the war unless it contains a timetable for withdrawal, and for the reasons set forth above, there won’t be a timetable in the next bill. These antiwar Dems have enough support from the base to ignore the usual carrot-and-stick routine, and they won’t be easily bribed away using earmarks. Furthermore, if Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can come up with a bill that’s acceptable to the president, for what ostensible reason could conservative Democrats withhold their support? There’s no need to bribe them.

That leaves Republicans. Pelosi and Reid will be aiming to buy off enough GOPers to pass a bill that limits our options in Iraq as much as possible without triggering a veto. In order to avoid another porkfest (and the bad public policy that inevitably follows), three things need to happen. House and Senate Republican leadership need to maintain unity — that means no vulnerable members agreeing to vote for a bad bill in exchange for a sweet earmark. Conservative members and staff need to stay on the lookout for pork flare-ups and be ready to notify the grassroots, the blogosphere, and the press. And finally, President Bush has made unrelated spending a central part of his firm case for vetoing the current bill. He should continue to send the message that he will not allow the troops to be used as pack mules for pork projects.

E-mail wastelandNRO@gmail.com with tips about governmental waste, fraud, and abuse.

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