As if you needed more proof that the U.S. Senate is completely out of control, the Senate voted last week to pass a $109-billion emergency spending bill for the war in Iraq, Katrina relief and to fight avian flu — despite President Bush's pledge to veto a bill that spends more than $94.5 billion.
Federal debt exceeds $8 trillion. Polls show that voters are sick and tired of Washington's pork-barrel spending. Still, senators can't stop larding bills with earmarks for local pet projects.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., — a family doctor who still delivers babies and prefers to be addressed as Dr. Coburn — introduced some 19 amendments to cut spending in the emergency measure. A small cadre of senators — including John McCain, R-Ariz. and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. — is allied with Coburn, but those good senators could not stop the emergency bill from ballooning by an extra $14 billion. They managed to kill only one measly earmark — $15 million to promote Gulf Coast seafood.
Coburn also tried to cut $11 million from a $22.5 million earmark to repair 29 sites on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta levees. His bid failed. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., hectored Coburn for being "penny-wise and pound foolish," while Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned that without these levees, "100,000 people could be killed."
One big problem: Feinstein and Boxer repeatedly vote as if people will die if they don't burn through buckets of tax dollars.
Feinstein voted to throw some $200 million at giant defense contractor Northrop Grumman for Katrina-related losses insurers would not reimburse. She also voted for a $700 million earmark to bankroll the rebuilding of a Mississippi rail line — that had already been rebuilt after Katrina.
Last year, Feinstein voted against a Coburn bid to reallocate $452 million in transportation earmarks — including the infamous Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" — so that the money could be used for Katrina relief. She also voted to protect a $950,000 parking garage in Oklahoma and a $500,000 sculpture park in Seattle. Feinstein at least did vote to cut the $15 million seafood pork.
Spokesman Howard Gantman gave me this explanation about the billion-plus of pork: "Sen. Feinstein feels it was very important to get the $37 million to help restore the levees in California. That's really all we have to say."
Boxer has a better record in that she voted against the big-ticket Northrop Grumman and Mississippi rail earmarks, but for the $15 million seafood entree. Alas, Boxer also voted to fund the Bridge to Nowhere and for the parking and sculpture earmarks.
Spokesperson Natalie Ravitz explained that Boxer "looked at each project in the emergency supplemental bill on its own merits, and when she had an opportunity to, she tended to vote against funds tailored to help a private company."
Coburn spokesman John Hart happily pointed me to the Citizens Against Government Waste pig book which lists $733 million in 2006 California pork projects — including $3.6 mil for grape research. "If Sacramento was about to be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood," Hart asked, "why was the California delegation securing funding for grape research instead of levee construction?"
Blame Bush for not vetoing a spending bill before. Blame GOP leaders for abandoning their principles and burning through tax dollars. But also, blame Boxer and DiFi — who is spending like a drunken sailor while facing re-election — for figuring that they'll scratch Alaska's back, so Alaska will throw scratch back.
After all, it's not their money.