No-Publicity Stunts

In which our man in Washington goes where other reporters are too jaded to tread.

Date: Fri, October 15, 1999 9:05:52 AM
Subj: In Search of the Social Security Trust Fund

I got a call Wednesday evening from Hank Welch at the Seniors Coalition, a conservative group known mostly for their adept direct-mail fund raising from the nation's elders. They'd just launched their Pork-Buster Patrol campaign, featuring a pink bus that will travel the country over the next three years exposing federal pork that threatens seniors' interests.

I'd met someone from the group earlier in the year and, considering my love of both buses and the intricacies of Social Security, had expressed interest in riding along if they motored out to the Bureau of the Public Debt in West Virginia to inspect the Social Security Trust Fund. Now I had my chance.

5:25 a.m. We pull out of the Springfield, Virginia, Hilton in the Porkbuster, a luxury Fleetwood RV appointed with oak paneling, two television sets, leather couches, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a shower, an oven, and, most important, a double bed. I'm bracing for a long day. The Bureau of the Public Debt is seven hours away.

Marion Hallman, a wiry woman with a great white mane, is maintaining a constant banter and exhibiting energy that no one should have at 5:00 in the morning. I make a quick escape to the bed in the rear of the bus and sack out next to a clear garbage bag bursting with individual bags of pork rinds.

8:40 a.m. The Porkbuster stops in Friendsville, Maryland, a town with not a single cup of coffee for sale. Marion, who has no apparent need for any, keeps repeating what a woman at a coffee-free corner store told her: There used to be restaurants here, but the highway moved and they were no longer making any money. "The same thing happened in Florida," she says. I step out for a walk and inspect the spectacle in which we're riding.

The pink Fleetwood RV is nearly as large as a Greyhound bus. Toward the front, a grimacing pig emerges out of the Capitol dome like a dancer from a stag party cake. It dispenses dollars to a reclining pig at the bus's rear. The reclining pig has been caught in the porkbusters' net. "Let's throw a net over pork-barrel spending," read white letters on the pink background. A sign superimposed over the pig's body reads: "Amount Stolen From Social Security Trust Fund: $840 billion." It's quite a sight.

10:35 a.m. We finally find a restaurant for breakfast, a hilltop Holiday Inn, and I start collecting background on my traveling companions. Marion is from Boca Raton, Florida, where she has long been politically active. She claims to be an accountant and former tax lawyer. "I'm like crabgrass," she says. "I pop up all over." She flew up to D.C. on Tuesday and has been on the big pink bus ever since.

John Kartch captains the Porkbuster. He hooked up with this job shortly after he came to D.C. from North Dakota, where he graduated from the state's flagship university in 1998. "I see this as really fun, something I believe in, and a great way to see the country," says Kartch of his commitment to pilot the pink beast 620,000 miles a year for three years. His goals: to identify and eliminate government waste and to stop special-interest legislation. Kartch will drive 14 hours today on a reported two hours of sleep.

11:15 a.m. The pink beast pulls out of the Holiday Inn, and I start talking to Steve Cohen, a 1999 graduate of the University of Virginia. The son of a retired UPS driver and a nurse, Cohen has been working for the Seniors Coalition all of three days. He was sent there as a temp. "I never thought I'd be a lobbyist," says Cohen, who is in charge of the day's pictures. He'll be capturing the Porkbuster with digital still and video cameras.

11:35 a.m. I interrupt Jed Richardson, the chairman of the Porkbuster campaign, as he sits on the leather love seat jotting down notes. Richardson was born and raised in Salt Lake City, where he now lives. Like Marion, Jed's retired--twice, in fact. In 1982 he retired from Brigham Young University, where he was a professor of communications and coached the debate team. In 1994, he left after a decade of work in government, which started with a job in Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's office and included stints in the Department of Education and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The problem of government waste, he says, comes from two factors: "People don't know. And the ones that know aren't motivated." Jed assures me that the Porkbuster will address both of these problems.

1:05 p.m. The Porkbuster pulls into an RV parking two blocks from our destination. John changes into a suit.

1:37 p.m. We enter the Bureau of the Public Debt under a green awning. Jed, who doesn't waste words, calls my attention to a barrel-sized garbage can filled with black golf umbrellas. A sign reads: "Umbrellas for use by bureau employees while attending classes, meetings, or official business." "Government-funded umbrellas," he said, as we walked past. "There's a pork barrel." A sign informs us that the building's cafeteria is not open to the public.

1:53 p.m. Matt Smargiasso, manager of the trust fund, and Howard Stevens, director of the division of special investments, escort us into a conference room. Howard starts to tell us his plans for the meeting, but before he can get a complete sentence out, the ever-energetic Marion informs him she wants to see a balance sheet, financial statements, and a note. She says that the biggest problem today is a lack of trust in government and such proof of the Social Security Trust Fund will help restore faith with the seniors back home.

To the relief of all, Matt passes down a few bundles of paper and starts his presentation, telling us that the one thing everyone at the bureau is especially proud of is the information they provide the public. He hands each of us the "Monthly Statement of the Public Debt of the United States" for September 30, 1999. Total debt: $5,656,271,000,000. Total marketable: $3,232,998,000,000. Total nonmarketable: $2,414,242,000,000. He explains that the Social Security Trust Fund is in the nonmarketable section, and then proceeds to show us where it is among the 185 non-marketable trust funds.

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