Cover Story
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense amid the mass of paperwork in his Washington office

Pigging out

Democrats promised to change the practice of earmarking, and they have made some reforms. But Congress continues to produce massive amounts of pork, and Christian groups are among those lobbying for thick slices of bacon

Issue: "Our pork," Dec. 8, 2007

Congressman Jeff Flake killed the Perfect Christmas Tree. The Arizona Republican and fierce opponent of earmark spending made a simple argument on the House floor: The federal government shouldn't spend $129,000 to bolster an ornament-making program by local artisans in Spruce Pine, N.C., even if it helps a lagging local economy.

The House voted to scuttle federal earmark spending for the "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" project of the Mitchell County Development Foundation. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, had inserted the earmark into a general government appropriations bill.

It was a meager victory for Flake: The congressman challenged some 50 earmarks totaling more than $77 million. The Christmas tree project was his only win.

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This year House legislators applied for more than 30,000 earmarks, the specially tagged federal dollars also known as pork-barrel spending. Earmarks typically fund pet projects in legislators' home districts but escape much of the scrutiny of competitive government grants. Roughly 8,000 earmarks survived, totaling billions of taxpayer dollars.

Among the earmarks the House approved over Flake's objections: $100,000 for a hunting and fishing museum in Tionesta, Pa.; $250,000 for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Wash.; and $628,843 for grape genetics research at Cornell University.

Flake wasn't alone in his earmark opposition. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., successfully squashed a $1 million earmark to fund a New York museum commemorating the Woodstock music festival. New York Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer had inserted the funding into an education and health spending bill.

But the Senate also passed a slew of eyebrow-raising earmarks in spending bills this fall: $500,000 for a "Virtual Herbarium" in New York; $100,000 to celebrate Lake Champlain's quadricentennial; and $400,000 for the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

Flake decried the thousands of earmarks squeezed into bills. "Those of us on the Republican side understand very well the political perils of this practice," Flake said on the House floor. "Unfettered earmarking-and the corruption that accompanies it-was a major factor in putting us right where we are today: squarely in the minority."

Democrats rode a wave of national frustration over ethical concerns and wasteful government spending by Republicans to victory in both houses of Congress last year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised that the new Democratic Congress would be "the most ethical Congress ever" and vowed to begin with earmark reform.

Congress did pass earmark reform earlier this year, improving transparency and reducing the overall number of earmarks. But critics-including a handful of outspoken legislators-say the process is still fraught with complication, cronyism, and potential for corruption, and that Congress needs to go further to keep its promises to use taxpayer money wisely.

Not all the money tagged for earmarks goes to projects like Christmas tree ornaments or virtual herbariums. Legislators also earmark funds for public enterprises like hospitals, roads, schools, and transit systems.

There's another group drawing attention for its penchant to seek earmarks: religious organizations. Spending bills this year included earmarks for Jewish nonprofits, Catholic community programs, and local YMCAs.

Evangelical organizations receive a piece of the pie as well. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., drew attention to the practice this fall when he earmarked $100,000 for the Louisiana Family Forum. The senator tagged the funds for the Christian organization's efforts to promote creationism in public schools.

The ACLU cried foul and charged Vitter with using government funds to promote religion. The senator eventually withdrew the earmark, citing "the hysterics" of secular groups.

Louisiana Family Forum president Gene Mills said he didn't know about the doomed earmark until he learned Vitter had already included it in the bill. (Legislators don't always inform groups they are seeking earmarks on their behalf.)

But other Christian organizations are closely watching to see if they will land earmarks when Congress finalizes spending bills this month. At least a handful of those groups have a vested interest: Like many organizations seeking earmarks, they've paid lobbyists to help procure the funds.

One of the most prominent groups lobbying for Christian organizations on Capitol Hill is the Washington, D.C.--based Russ Reid Company. Mark McIntyre spearheads the group's lobbying efforts from his office on L Street.

McIntyre formerly worked as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, and as a press secretary to former Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La. Before retiring, Livingston chaired the House Appropriations Committee, overseeing earmarks in the House.

McIntyre did not respond to WORLD's requests for an interview, but the organization's website says Russ Reid Company specializes in "securing significant federal dollars for our clients through the line-item earmark process." The site includes a list of clients the company has served, including Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, Fuller Theological Seminary, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.

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