The Pig Slayer

Sen. Tom Coburn wages a one-man war on pork.


Tom Coburn, Oklahoma's junior Senator, recently offered me $17.1 billion. To get it, all I have to do is forgo $591,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute (Conrad Burns's final act in the Senate?), $1.1 million for alternative salmon research in Alaska, $194,000 for Goose Control in the state of New York, and few other similar gems. It'll be tough, but I think I can manage.

Coburn (R-Okla.), along with Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and a few other allies have decided to reintroduce Washington Republicans to the concept of fiscal restraint. They're starting small, nixing a mere 10,000 earmarks and stalling budget growth, for a savings estimated by Coburn at about $17 billion.

Here's the technical, boring explanation of their tactics: By stalling all budget appropriations bills (except defense and homeland security, which have already passed) for the year that began October 1, Coburn and his compatriots will likely force a "continuing resolution." This means that federal funding in the areas of the nine remaining appropriations will remain at last year's levels, probably until at least late January, when the new Democratic Congress passesits own versions of the appropriations. Some are still hoping to get a long term continuing resolution, to extend through 2007, but that's a long shot. As an added benefit, all of the pending earmarks expire at the end of the year, and will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress—which would, presumably, rather get on to other things.

How can a few relatively junior senators wreak such havoc? They're threatening to introduce 40 amendments that would force senators to vote on individual pork projects rather than sneaking them though inside enormous appropriations bills. The hope is that even the most hardened earmarker will feel a bit sheepish about approving half a million dollars of federal money for an ovine think tank in Montana, especially after many of them ran for re-election on platforms of fiscal responsibility. The 40 proposed amendments are peanuts compared to the 115 anti-pork amendments Coburn proposed to add to an agriculture appropriations bill while he was a member of the House of Representatives in 1999—producing, as George Will pointed out, "effectively, a filibuster in a chamber that does not allow filibusters."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is an unlikely ally in the fight against federal spending on sheep-related activities. His list for killable pork includes $1 million for the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center in Hawaii, among other similarly obscure projects.

The anti-pork nuts have also been fighting skirmishes over individual bills: Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) got so annoyed at DeMint's efforts to block $4.9 billion in "emergency" farm appropriations bill that he opted for the tried and true strategy of spoiled kids everywhere—appeal to an authority figure for help.  Hoping (misguidedly, as it turns out) to get an adult-sanctioned edge in the playground squabble, Cochran implored President Bush to make a call from his overseas tour to chew out DeMint, according to Bob Novak.

Bush didn't intervene, resulting in an "absolute disaster and catastrophe" (a.k.a., a mild cost-cutting resolution), according to House Appropriations chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

Coburn isn't above calling for help from a higher power, however. He has publicly called on Bush to veto any earmark-laden bills coming out of the Democratic congress next year. If his tactics work and spending is stalled at current levels until then, he'll have a very different political landscape to operate in, one where the line between fiscal responsibility and partisan obstructionism will be blurred—in a good way.

Overall federal spending is up about 49 percent since 2001, so it's not like any federal agencies are starving, despite dire predictions from the Department of Veterans' Affairs and others. Said a (very blunt) Coburn spokesman: "Any agency that can't figure out how to function under a one-year CR is incompetent."

Coburn says he has a mandate for his hardball tactics: "Among the Republicans who lost their re-election bids a surprising number were political moderates who advocated a more activist government. Several Republican members of the appropriations committees, which have been on a spending binge, also were not re-elected…. Our short-term, politically-expedient, bread and circus governing philosophy has failed."

"There should now be less doubt about whether overspending and pork projects are bad policy and bad politics," he goes on. "This year, in particular, pork did not save our vulnerable incumbents but helped drag them down."

Coburn's other successful venture into earmark policing this session was pushed though in partnership with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). The legislation requires that all federal contracts to be dropped into an Internet accessible database open to the public. The unlikely pair learned to work together at a freshman orientation program for senators. This year's featured speakers?: Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) chatting about their fruitful bipartisan efforts on defense appropriations. They were assigned to explain to the new kids "how the Senate is supposed to work," according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). It seems Obama and Coburn (and DeMint) didn't like what they saw and decided to do something about it. Sens. Stevens and Inouye—who call each other "brothers" and are famous for being two of the porkiest members of the Senate—must have done their job a little too well.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.