Amid the Financial Crisis, Congress Passes $410 Billion Spending Bill That’s Packed With Pork

By Don Miller
Associate Editor
Money Morning

The U.S. Congress today (Tuesday) gave its final approval on a $410 billion omnibus spending bill that will boost domestic spending for a bevy of federal agencies, and loosen trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.  The bill is also laden with a thick layer of fat from a host of pet projects known as "earmarks."

The Senate supported the bill 62-35, including the votes of eight Republican senators, after Democrats prevailed in a week-long struggle to round up the necessary votes.  The disputes primarily revolved around an increase in pay for legislators and wrangling for insertion of the earmarks on both sides of the aisle.

The legislation, which the House passed Feb. 25, heads to President Barack Obama for his signature into law. The White House sought to distance Obama from the omnibus bill, while repeating that he intended to sign it as soon as it reaches its desk.

"It represents last year's business," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, adding that Obama will sign the legislation even though "it's not perfect."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the loser of  last year's presidential election, attacked the president over the bill which, despite Obama's criticism of earmarks, contains money for thousands of special projects.

"If it seems like I'm angry, it's because I am," said McCain, who sponsored a failed amendment to hold spending at last year's levels.  He called on Obama to veto the 1,132-page legislation, posting a long list of earmarks on Twitter in his push to discredit it. 

According to the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, the legislation includes about $9 billion for approximately 8,500 pet projects. Among the spending on these so-called earmarks:

  • $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management research in Iowa.
  • $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii.
  • $381,000 for music programs at New York City's Lincoln Center.
  • $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in Cody, Wyo.
  • $143,000 for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.
  • $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Honolulu.

But Democrats fired back that Republicans - including the party's leadership - had been responsible for about 40% of the earmarks in the measure. 

Indeed, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, was leading the pack with $470 million in earmarks, including healthcare services for the poor, university grants, and water and sewer projects, according to the Washington Times.

Lawmakers seemed bent on answering critics by saying Congress has already created transparency in the process by posting the names of lawmakers attached with all earmarks.

"This is why our Founding Fathers gave Congress the explicit power to direct spending: so that those who are elected by the people, not bureaucrats, decide how funds are spent," Cochran told the newspaper.

But as Obama prepared to sign the pork-stuffed bill, he said any future earmarks should  be even more transparent to the public. "Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer," Bloomberg News reported.

Republicans had also attempted to put Democrats in a political bind by requiring legislators to vote each year on whether they would get a pay raise, ending the 20-year old practice of giving members of Congress automatic cost-of-living increases.  

The measure was defeated 52-45 even though Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called the practice "offensive" at a time when lawmakers' constituents are struggling to find or hold onto their jobs.

The amendment was an attempt by Republicans to seize the high ground and reinforce their contention the $410 billion bill is another step in a federal spending spree - $700 billion in Wall Street bailouts, a $787 billion stimulus bill, and President Obama's proposed $3.55 trillion budget for 2010 - that could bankrupt the country.

The troubles encountered in getting the bill passed signaled the sort of difficulties Senate Democrats could find later this year when they push for contentious proposals to overhaul the health care system, and raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

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