Republican pork: GOP funds bushmen and blueberries

The huge omnibus spending bill that's passed the House and will be voted on in the Senate when it reconvenes in Washington is loaded with special gifts. Known in Washington as "earmarks," and known to the rest of us as pork, these gift items have escaped all notice and accountability. There were no hearings on them, and no competitive bidding for them. There's no reason for any of them except that members of Congress want to curry favor in order to get re-elected.

The pork in this one bill totals $23 billion. That's a new record. Pork-barrel spending has doubled in the last five years.

This year's gift items include $50 million for a four-and-a-half acre indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa, courtesy of Iowa's Republican Senator Charles Grassley. Then there's $1 million for the Anchorage Museum, courtesy of Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens. Republican Representative Jim Gibbins gets a quarter of a million dollars to repair a swimming pool in his hometown of Sparks, Nevada.

And on and on it goes: $200,000 to the University of Hawaii to produce a documentary on Kalahari Bushmen, $220,000 to the University of Maine to renovate a blueberry research center. Here's a good one: half a million dollars to the University of Akron for a program called "Exercises in Hard Choices," examining how Congress makes budget decisions.

All this would be bad enough if the federal government was flush with cash. But let me remind you: We're deep in the hole. The federal deficit is flowing red ink. This year's deficit alone will be over $400 billion. We're fighting a war against terrorism that's costing more than anyone ever imagined. Meanwhile, American farmers are getting billions in extra subsidies. There's a giant $1.7 trillion tax break, and a huge drug benefit just added to Medicare. And what about the tens of millions of baby boomers within eyesight of retirement? Where are we ever going to get the money to pay their Social Security and Medicare?

Republicans are in control, folks. They used to preach fiscal conservatism. Now they've opened the flood gates. And on top of everything else, they're flooding the nation with pork.

At least if the President had a line-item veto, the buck would stop at the Oval Office. He'd have to explain why he had allowed $50 million for the Iowa rain forest, for example. But the Supreme Court, you may remember, rejected the line-item veto because they said it gave the president power that properly belonged with Congress.

Here's a better idea. When the spending bill comes to his desk, give the president power to highlight all this pork– call it a "pork budget," if you will– and then send the pork budget back to Congress and require both houses to vote up or down on it. This way, members would have to stand up and be counted. Are they for pork or against it?

The only problem with my idea: Congress would have to enact it.

Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis and the author of Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, out in May from Knopf. This essay first appeared as a broadcast on NPR's Marketplace.