On the off chance that you find yourself in northern North Dakota, touring the border between the U.S. and Canada and worried about an imminent outbreak of war between the two countries, you might comfort yourself with a visit to the International Peace Garden. Go ahead. After all, you paid for it! Actually, we all did. American taxpayers shelled out $450,000 for this gem. Apparently, the garden is a “wonderful and remarkable place” and a “symbol of peace” between the two countries, or at least that’s what North Dakota Senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad would have us believe.
If you’re looking to point fingers for this taxpayer-funded travesty, there are plenty of worthy targets. A total of 63 senators voted against an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn to strip three wasteful pork projects from the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill last week. Besides North Dakota’s peace garden, nearly two-thirds of the Senate gave its blessing to a $500,000 earmark for a baseball field in Montana and a $400,000 earmark for the Wetland Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana. To add insult to injury, 80 senators voted against another Coburn amendment that would have transferred all money earmarked for bicycle trails to repairing the country’s structurally deficient bridges. Only 18 senators thought making sure our bridges are safe is more important than constructing bike trails.
Listening to Senators Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Kit Bond (R., Mo.) rhapsodize about the life-or-death necessity of bike trails, you have to wonder what happened to all the talk about fiscal responsibility. The Democrats, at least, have an excuse. They have never supported limiting government spending and are giddy with the power of being in the majority. But the GOP? Only ten months after the party got its backside handed to it in the 2006 elections, the lessons of November 7 and Duke Cunningham are fading faster than John McCain’s presidential campaign.
It is easy for conservatives to attack Democrats like Harry Reid and Robert Byrd for baseball field slush funds, and they certainly deserve a hefty dose of criticism. But it is time for conservatives to take a long and hard look at their own party and leaders, and ask why it is always the same ten to twenty guys willing to put their necks on the line while the rest of the bunch follows Ted Stevens over the cliff like lemmings to their death.
Sadly, you don’t have to look far for an answer to this mystery. As the saying goes, all politics is local, and there is nothing more political and more local than pork. In the world of political gamesmanship, voting against pork projects — even painfully outrageous ones like peace gardens — jeopardizes a senator’s own earmarks, and few are willing to make that sacrifice on behalf of American taxpayers. Even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voted against every single Coburn amendment while boasting about the millions of dollars in pork projects he secured for his home state of Kentucky on his congressional website: $4 million for the Paducah riverfront, $2 million for the Paducah Area Transit System, $1 million for the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, and so on.
To his credit, President Bush is threatening to veto the appropriations bill if they exceed his spending limit, yet few Republican senators are willing to back him up. The overbloated Transportation Bill was $4 million over the president’s line, but only seven senators — all Republicans — voted against final passage.
Of course, this is nothing new. According to an independent review (requested by Senator Coburn) of congressional earmarks and released September 7, 2007, the FY 2006 Transportation Appropriations Bill contained 8,056 earmarked projects worth more than $8.54 billion. From 1996 to 2005, earmarks within the Department of Transportation increased in number by 1,150 percent and in value by 314 percent. But even this stunning revelation is not enough to make our senators blush.
In fact, just the opposite is occurring. Instead of being ashamed, sponsors of targeted earmarks proudly defend their pet projects while expressing amazement that a fellow colleague would dare target their beloved museum or baseball field. Just last week, when his precious peace garden was challenged by Senator Coburn’s amendment, Senator Byron Dorgan declared with practiced indignation: “We would not want to invest in this national treasure? Is that what we’ve come to? This makes no sense at all. My hope is that those who believe the bureaucrats will know best about spending will understand that this amendment is not worthy.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, Senator. Peace gardens and baseball fields — is that what we’ve come to? This makes no sense at all.
– Pat Toomey is the president of the Club for Growth.