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Borrowing Time

Congress dishes out pork while racking up a record deficit


As his colleagues were preparing to vote on a hastily wrapped porker of a spending bill so they could adjourn before Thanksgiving, Arizona Republican John McCain had a few things to say about spending that has pushed the federal deficit past $410 billion.

McCain complained about $10 million for the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board: "Is there something wrong with these fish that warrants such an expensive program to convince us to eat them?"

He griped about a $1 million grant earmarked for the Wild American Shrimp Initiative: "Are American shrimp unruly and lacking initiative? Why does the U.S. taxpayer need to fund this 'no shrimp left behind' act?"

He heaped scorn on $350,000 directed to Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is hurting badly."

He lashed out at a $100,000 earmark for the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation: "By the way, the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation proudly proclaims on their Web site that they receive no government funding and will continue to operate as an independent organization."

McCain cited dozens of other examples, and suggested he could have cited plenty more.

"I would like to talk for hours about it," he said, "but I do not have the courage to hold up the travel plans of all of my colleagues."

All of McCain's targets are so-called "earmarks"--specific funding for specific projects that have political support. Ten years ago, McCain said, the budget contained 4,126 earmarks, worth a total of $26.6 billion. This year, there were more than 14,000 earmarks, worth $47.9 billion.

As more damning evidence of a corrupt system, McCain cited a report from the Heritage Foundation detailing how lobbying firms are now pitching to clients based on their power to get earmarks written into appropriation bills.

McCain's appeal to thrift did little to blunt the bill's passage. It slipped through the Senate on a 65-30 vote and sailed past the House 344-51, although the legislation has since stalled while lawmakers work to strip a barely noticed provision that would give the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee and their staff authority to review tax returns at their discretion.

Arizona's junior senator, Republican Jon Kyl, also voted against the bill, but in a more low-key and partisan manner, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of congressional Democrats.

"Obstructionist tactics by the Democratic minority prevented much of the federal government's discretionary spending from even being legitimately debated, by grinding the budget bill and individual appropriations bills to a halt with endless amendments and other parliamentary delaying tactics," observed Kyl.

The end result, he added, "is a lousy way to legislate."

District 8 Congressman Jim Kolbe, the chief sponsor of the bill, had a more positive perspective. In an e-mailed dispatch, Kolbe, who won his 11th term last month, laid out a laundry list of projects that would benefit Southern Arizona, including funding for a variety of border protection and law-enforcement programs, including tech upgrades. Kolbe also boasted about more dollars for transportation projects, including Sun Tran buses, and environmental programs. Individual earmarks including funding for the San Xavier Mission ($250,000), downtown's Fox Theater ($430,000), a pedestrian bridge spanning Interstate 10 near Congress Street in conjunction with the UA's planned Science Center ($500,000) and the Dunbar School renovation project ($72,500), among others.

"Congressman Kolbe is proud to deliver important projects to the people of Southern Arizona which benefit the community and the nation," said spokeswoman Davy Kong.

Southern Arizona's Democratic congressman, Raul Grijalva, was one of 51 House members to vote against the bill.

Grijalva complained that the spending package included provisions that eased oversight of timber sales, grazing permits and other environmental regs, as well as shortchanging education programs and veterans' healthcare benefits.

"There were too many negatives that outweighed the positives, and I could not, in good conscience, vote for a bill that will hurt our environment, our veterans, our children and our democracy," Grijalva said.

Grijalva's concern about funding health care for veterans is particularly acute considering McCain's prediction that the country's current military activities will carry a heavy cost.

"There is no one I know who is an expert outside the administration who does not believe we are going to have to spend a lot more money on defense, one reason being that our military is too small," said McCain, who estimated that the U.S. could need as many as 80,000 more soldiers in the Army and as many as 30,000 more soldiers in the Marine Corps.

"It is all going to cost money," McCain continued. "But instead, we are going to spend tens of billions of dollars in wasteful and unnecessary spending and increase this debt on future generations of Americans.

"We can't afford to do this," McCain warned. "We cannot afford to continue a broken system such as this, where the night we are going out of session, we have a 1,630-page bill that none of us have seen or read."

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