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Mad tea party

"Mad tea party" Continued...

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

Legislators who push through pork-barrel projects typically say they're merely advocating for their constituents. But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an outspoken opponent of pork-barrel spending, says federal lawmakers should be asking, "Who are my constituents?" To members of Congress, Mr. Coburn says: "Your constituents are the taxpayers of the United States of America and the future generation. . . . If you're backing projects that benefit you politically back home, you're not being a good steward of public money."

Mr. Coburn recently blasted a $700 million earmark to tear down a newly rebuilt railroad line in Mississippi. Dozens of blue-collar workers for CSX Transportation worked feverishly for nearly five months to repair six major bridges and 40 miles of train track on CSX's Gulf Coast Line, a major east-west railroad decimated by Hurricane Katrina. CSX and its insurers spent $300 million to repair the damage, and announced the line's reopening in mid-January. But earlier this month, the Senate appropriations committee approved $700 million to tear down and relocate the newly rebuilt line.

The head-scratching project is attached to a $107 billion spending measure to fund the war in Iraq and additional hurricane relief. Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who had pushed for the relocation project long before the hurricane, now calls the venture an important part of the state's recovery, citing safety concerns and traffic congestion. "If you're going to recover right, you've got to rebuild right," said Lott spokesman Lee Youngblood.

Sen. Coburn calls the railroad funding "extraneous pork" and says it's "ludicrous" for the Senate to foot the bill. "If the state wants to pay for it that's fine," he told WORLD, "but it's not the obligation of the federal government to move a private railroad." Though the proposal didn't come out in time to make the Pig Book, CAGW's Mr. Schatz says it would qualify: "For $700 million, the Congress could certainly do a lot more to help people that are still without homes."

Wasting taxpayer dollars isn't the only thing that concerns Mr. Schatz about pork-barrel spending. "It also has the potential to lead to corruption," he says, pointing to former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). Mr. Cunningham recently began serving an eight-year sentence in a federal prison after admitting to tax evasion, mail fraud, and accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called the Senate appropriations committee "an earmark favor factory."

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors opened an investigation into the personal financial disclosures of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who faces questions about whether he provided earmarks benefiting companies and individuals who helped make him a millionaire, according to The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Mollohan, who holds the ranking post on the House ethics committee, has denied any wrongdoing.

Sen. Coburn, whose home state ranked 48th in CAGW's report, emphasizes that pork-barrel spending is a problem in both parties and warns, "We have to fix this now, or we'll have to fix it when it becomes a catastrophe." Rep. Flake says a small catastrophe could greet Republicans in the midterm elections if they don't curb spending: "If Americans want big government, they'll eventually go back to the original article-the Democrats."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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