While congressional leaders wrangled over the details of a federal bailout for Wall Street that could cost taxpayers an extraordinary $700 billion, the U.S House quietly passed an omnibus-spending bill for nearly the same amount Wednesday. The Senate is expected to pass the $630 billion measure by week's end.
Senate leaders wringing their hands over where to find $700 billion for the Wall Street bailout might start with the fine print of the omnibus bill: The measure includes more than $6.6 billion in pork-barrel spending.
The 2,000-plus earmarks fill 752 pages attached to the 357-page spending bill. Sen. Ted Stevens, notorious for his huge earmark requests, scored the largest haul-some $238.5 million in earmarks.
(Earlier Thursday morning, Stevens sat in a Washington courtroom for the first day in his federal corruption trial: The Alaska Republican has pleaded not guilty to charges of lying on Senate disclosure forms about $250,000 in gifts he received from an oilfield-services company.)
In the U.S. House, Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) brought in the most earmarks-more than $111 million, including $24.5 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center, an organization critics say is rife with mismanagement.
Democrats rushed the spending bill to the floor on Wednesday, giving Republicans and outside watchdog groups only a few hours to review the measure before a House vote. Critics complained that the process lacked the transparency for earmarks that Democrats promised when winning the majority in the House. But with the nation riveted by the Wall Street crisis, the spending bill and its earmarks made few ripples before passing with bipartisan support.
A few hours later, President Bush made his case for a gigantic Wall Street bailout. During his nationally televised speech last night, the president emphasized that America isn't facing "normal circumstances," and that the severe crisis calls for severe measures. If that's the case, perhaps Congress shouldn't proceed with business as normal, either, approving billions in earmarks for projects with no vetting.
While the $6.6 billion in earmarks approved this week represent only about 0.9 percent of the $700 billion bailout figure, they also represent an infection similar to the disease afflicting Wall Street: unchecked spending. If Congress doesn't cure that ailment in its own chambers, taxpayers can expect any relief from a wider spread crisis to be short-lived.