Capitol Hill cynics

While some Americans sacrifice, Congress spends and spends

Issue: "Fighting words," Jan. 12, 2002

No letup, says our president. If you thought 2001 was a buckle-down year, get set. The challenges of 2002 may be tougher yet. The battle against terrorism has just begun. Don't expect things to be easy. Get your boots planted on a war footing. Amazingly, almost everywhere, folks have responded. We understand, they've said. You're right, Mr. President. We'll do what we have to do. Everywhere, that is, except at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Sacrificial patriotism may be the order of the day in Manhattan and Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Spokane. But in both houses of the U.S. Congress, on both sides of the aisle, the very opposite spirit dominates. A two-timing cynicism toward the use of government resources has overwhelmed the legislative arm of our government-and the American people are being burglarized in the process. So maybe there's still a big difference between international terrorism and domestic burglary. But to use the fear of one to justify the other-which is precisely what our Congress is doing day after day through these winter months-still leaves average Americans as the victims. For all of us, the victimization is expensive. There is also a big difference between legitimate political debate over the proper use of government resources, on the one hand, and the use of political sleight-of-hand, on the other, so that Congress can divert scarce resources to its own advantage. Like a master magician, Congress in recent weeks has soberly distracted us with one hand to point to the terrible things happening around the world, while blatantly picking our pockets clean with the other. While the fires at the World Trade Center in New York were literally still burning, Congress in early November sent President Bush a $113 billion appropriations bill including an estimated 1,400 "urgent" items under the headings of science, veterans' affairs, housing, and environmental concern. Anything Congress thought couldn't be justified under the rationale of opposing terrorism was, of course, more than warranted because it would help stimulate a lagging economy. So no other rationale was needed to justify any project that popped into someone's mind. And plenty of projects popped into people's minds. That's why in my town of Asheville, N.C., $2.5 million in federal money was designated for assorted airport improvements-even though the funds hadn't even been requested! It was a nice gesture by our conservative Republican congressman. But if there's $2.5 million available in my district for a project no one had even asked for, am I to conclude that your district as well-and, indeed, every one of the 435 congressional districts nationwide-enjoyed similar largesse? Well, no, that is in fact a very inaccurate conclusion to draw, according to the organization called Citizens Against Government Waste. CAGW says things are actually much worse than that. Instead of finding just one $2.5 million piece of pork in every congressional district, CAGW says taxpayers might well identify about a dozen pork packages of that size in every district-assuming that the waste was evenly distributed across the national landscape. CAGW (its website is www.cagw.org) charges that Congress authorized more than $18 billion in pointless spending-or about $40 million per congressional district-for pet projects back home this past year. Keep in mind that this isn't about the debate between rich and poor. This isn't about whether government should take care of those who have fallen through society's safety nets. This isn't about big corporations vs. private citizens. This isn't about statist education vs. private education. In terms of our federal budget, all those issues have already been resolved pretty much in big government's favor. That budget already gobbles up about $5,000 every year from every man, woman, and child in America. This CAGW argument is instead about a measly little $60 charge tacked on to the $5,000 bill that's already in place. So this is about cynical politicians playing frivolously with the last little bit of your money. To be sure, we're a wealthy nation. To a lot of people, $60 per citizen isn't all that much. You'll have to multiply that $60 by the number of people in your household and decide for yourself whether that's a level of waste you think you can tolerate in a year's time. However you resolve that debate, here's what you and other Americans can't afford: You can't afford dishonest, posturing, equivocating politicians who constantly pretend they're bettering your and the nation's lot while in fact they're only feathering their own nests. Such dishonesty is bad enough when things are normal. But when your nation is at war, and people are being called to sacrifice, the politicians who do such things profoundly betray the national interest.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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