Financial news this holiday season has been dominated by stories of skin-flint consumers. Al Gore's deferred presidential dreams and lackluster corporate earnings reports have put stock markets on a bumpy ride. The NASDAQ has become a double black diamond ski run and the swift ride downhill has left investors feeling the worse for wear. Retailers ranging from the soon-to-be history Etoys.com to the stalwart Wal-Mart are reporting sales well under what they expected. Even Las Vegas' gambling revenues are down.
But there's one group of Americans who still feel plenty rich and aren't the least bit hesitant to throw cash around: your federal legislators. That's not just because they boosted their average annual pay by $3,800, up to a grand total of $145,100. It's because it's not their money they're spending, but yours. Congress and President Clinton finally agreed on the last details of the 2001 federal budget in mid-December. Unsurprisingly, they're giving away more than anyone claims to have wanted. Last February, President Clinton asked for $624 billion in discretionary spending. In April, Congress passed a budget resolution authorizing $605 billion. By mid-December, they had agreed to split the difference Washington-style by appropriating $634 billion, a new record.
There's enough pork—specific, highly dubious spending programs earmarked for the districts of influential legislators—in the bills to keep America barbecuing until next Labor Day, when the next cycle of budget battles is set to start. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose staff scours each appropriation bill, estimates that Congress will disburse more than $24 billion worth of pure, 100 percent pork this year. That's nearly 4 percent of all discretionary spending.
"Last year set a record by more than $3.7 billion over the previous high," says Citizens Against Government Waste spokesman Sean Rushton, who adds that this year will top that total by $3 to $5 billion. "Even members who claim to be fiscally conservative are competing for pork. They feel like suckers if they don't get a slab of bacon for their districts."
What follows is my subjective list of the Top 10 Most Egregious Pork Projects for 2001. With so many examples to choose from (supplied graciously and freely by Citizens Against Government Waste and Sen. McCain's office), it's no easy feat to narrow the field down. But here's a start.
10. Lord of the Flies. There just aren't enough bugs in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's home state. Appropriators in charge of the Agriculture bill decided to spend $5 million to raise insects in Stoneville, Mississippi.
9. Island Pig Roast. The Pineapple Growers Association in Hawaii received a $300,000 stocking-stuffer from Congress this year. It's hard to imagine why taxpayers in less hospitable climes should pick up that tab, rather than the association's three corporate members: Dole Food Hawaii, Del Monte Fresh Produce, and Maui Pineapple Company.
8. Mistake on the Lake. Residents of Cleveland, Ohio will certainly be grateful to Congress for the $500,000 it's spending to restore a carousel in the city. That's one merry-go-round that will take all Americans for a ride.
7. Memorial Pay. Considering how well the Veterans Administration runs its hospitals, it's easy to see why Congress would give the VA $250,000 to host the Sixth International Conference on "Sport and Human Performance Beyond Disability."
6. Safe Bet. Gambling revenues are down in Las Vegas. One reason people may be spending less is that they actually have wait at the airport for their boarding passes. Not for long. Congress will cut University of Nevada-Las Vegas a $2 million check to help develop a system for distributing boarding passes at hotels. It may just save travelers 30 minutes–that's an extra half-hour they could be gambling.
5. Tarheel Baby. Pig shit is certainly a problem in North Carolina (just as horseshit is a problem on Capitol Hill). Sympathetic legislators are sending $500,000 to North Carolina State University for a Swine Waste Management research project.
4. Admiral Byrd. A Byrd in the Senate is better than two Bushes in the White House. At least that's what Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia's leading industry, tries to prove every year at appropriations time. There's plenty of swill in the federal mug for the Mountaineer State, including $150,000 for a documentary film project titled "The Appalachians."
3. Fishy Project. Established in 1866, Long Island's Southside Sportsman Club was once a fishing retreat for the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Adlai Stevenson, and the Vanderbilts. In 1974 it was handed over to the state and became Connetquot River State Park. This year the feds are getting involved, sending it $400,000 for historic preservation.
2. Roasted Nuts. No word on whether Southwest Airlines, famous for serving only peanuts, lobbied for the $400,000 that Congress will send to the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness in Griffin, Georgia. Somehow I doubt it.
1. Green Eggs & Ham. The Housing & Urban Development/Veterans Administration bill is a gigantic honey-baked ham for members of Congress looking to send a little something special back home. Sen. McCain reports that it took 46 double-spaced pages to list all the pet projects in the bill, far more than any member could actually read before casting a vote. Included among those 46 pages: $550,000 for a monument to Dr. Seuss in Springfield, Mass.