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Thanksgiving brings feeding frenzy round pork barrel { November 26 2003 }

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Thanksgiving brings feeding frenzy round the pork barrel
By Deborah McGregor in Washington
Published: November 26 2003 4:00 | Last Updated: November 26 2003 4:00

The end of a session of Congress often takes on the mood of a festive bazaar. Lawmakers are courted by House and Senate leaders with promises of special projects - a new bridge here, a post office there - in exchange for their votes on legislation deemed vital to the ruling party's interests.

This year, however, the bazaar turned downright brazen. Even veteran observers of the annual binges of pork-barrel spending blanched at the scale of open trading in votes, as Republicans sought to clinch big legislative victories ahead of next year's elections.

Last-minute bargaining on Medicare, energy, federal spending bills, veterans' benefits and other issues helped push up the price tag on legislation and threatened to make a shambles of fiscal planning for next year and beyond.

The Medicare bill alone contained more than $120bn (101.75bn, 70.7bn) in tax breaks and subsidies for business to help entice companies to participate in a new prescription drug benefit for elderly Americans.

The energy bill, which failed to pass but may be resurrected next year, ended up containing more than $30bn in tax breaks for business. Many companies returned the favour by pulling out all the stops to lobby individual lawmakers to support the legislation.

The year-end spending bills, rolled into an omnibus measure, provided yet another vehicle for pet projects.

In one revealing moment recently, Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat, recounted standing next to a Republican senator who was the target of a particularly heavy bit of arm-twisting by Senate leaders. The Republican senator, who was refusing to vote in favour of a controversial energy bill, turned to her and said: "The more they do this, the more I am inclined not to vote for it."

In that case, the heavy-handedness backfired. But more often it succeeds. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who early in the energy negotiations was one of the most vocal critics of the bill, threw his support behind the legislation after loan guarantees were added for a power plant that would use lignite coal produced in his state.

Tom Daschle, the leading Democrat in the Senate, made no secret of the fact that he supported the energy bill because of its ethanol provisions, which would benefit farmers in his largely rural state of South Dakota.

The fact that the omnibus spending bill was left open until the vital Medicare and energy negotiations were completed was not lost on veteran observers of congressional politics. "They're offering appropriations funding for home-state projects in exchange for votes," said one senior Democratic aide.

In the past, the cajoling and arm-twisting was less open. Some lawmakers - such as John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and David Obey, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin - have long railed at the nudge-and-wink inclusion of pet projects in the annual spending bills.

But the open market-place in votes has gone well beyond what used to be considered one of the shadier aspects of American democracy in action.

Mr McCain took to the Senate floor last week to complain that the energy bill was a travesty. "I fear for the passage of a 1,200-page, pork-laden bill. The outbreak of Washington trichinosis will be so severe we will be forced to have a field office for the Centers for Disease Control right next to the Capitol," he declared.

Mr McCain was among those - including five other Republicans - who voted against ending debate on the bill last week, effectively killing it for the year.

Bill Frist, the Senate's majority leader, drew fire from some of his Republican colleagues for openly warning them that if they valued the individual items for their states embedded in important legislation, they should vote for the overall bill, since passing the provisions individually would be difficult.

In the House of Representatives, where Republican leaders rule with an iron fist, the strong-arming tactics were most in evidence during the dramatic pre-dawn vote last weekend on Medicare legislation.

House leaders, sometimes sitting on both sides of a wavering lawmaker and grabbing an elbow or patting a shoulder, were merciless in applying pressure. One Democratic congressman generated concern when he appeared in the wee hours to go blank, sitting paralysed in his seat as those around him plied him with home-state goodies designed to win his vote. In the end, he capitulated, helping put the Medicare legislation over the top and on its way to the president.

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