Members of the House and Senate desperately want to leave Washington and get back to their home districts for the holidays. They recessed before Thanksgiving and hoped to stay home until 2004. But alas, duty calls: They can't start their vacation without taking one more crack at passing their Christmas wish list.
Officially it's an omnibus spending bill lawmakers are trying to vote on the week of Dec. 8. Three months into the 2004 fiscal year, they have managed to pass only six of the 13 spending bills required to keep the federal government running. So, with the clock ticking down, they've crammed the remaining $373 billion into one massive bill that could run longer than 2,500 pages when it's finally printed out prior to a vote.
But critics charge that the measure is little more than a gift bag for politicians bent on reelection. It's loaded down with so-called earmarks, the special spending projects lawmakers slip in to benefit their states and congressional districts. Despite the Republican takeover of Congress, such budgetary pork has been growing in recent years, and 2004 promises to set a record (see chart).
"The congressional spending spree of the past few years is well documented, and this year promises to be no different," says Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "Congress is set to bust its own budget cap in order to protect pork projects such as the Please Touch Museum and Trout Genome Mapping."
The touchable museum and the fish-mapping effort are just two of the pet projects that have helped drive federal spending per household to its highest level since World War II (see chart). Officially, the projects are supposed to support economic development, transportation infrastructure, or labor, health, and education programs. In practice, however, they often support little more than an ambitious politician's reelection effort. How else to explain $800,000 to purchase buses in Mammoth Lakes, Cal., or $150,000 for a single traffic light for the Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District? Then there's $90,000 for olive fruitfly research, $270,000 for potato storage, and another $270,000 for something called the U.S. Vegetable Lab.
Here's a look at some of the other items lawmakers are asking Santa for this year:
$250,000: Call Me Mister program, Clemson University
$315,000: Formosan Subterranean Termite research
$100,000: Renovation of the historic Coca-Cola building, Macon, Ga.
$180,000: Seafood waste research, Fairbanks, Alaska
$250,000: Theater construction, Studio for the Arts, Pocahontas, Ark.
$90,000: Rabbit Run Community Arts Association, Madison, Ohio
$150,000: Renovation of Farmers market, Dallas
$400,000: Davenport Music History Museum, Davenport, Iowa
$600,000: Web Wise Kids