Cutting Pork: Another Glitch in the CW Right vs Left Storyline

Although you wouldn't know it from listening to the mainstream media, the right/left view of American politics is slowly going the way of Betamax, the 8-track, and "Cheney '08" bumper stickers.

It's well past time that right vs left gave way to right vs wrong.

We're seeing this political realignment on a number of fronts -- most significantly on Iraq where a growing number of conservative voices are speaking out against the president's policies.

And we're seeing it again in the battle to reform the system of pork barrel spending that has helped turn the United States Congress into what Jack Abramoff memorably likened to a "favor factory" (it's like a Beltway "Willy Wonka" -- but the only gold tickets given out there go to lobbyists and other special interest hacks).

A number of new Congressional proposals have put "earmarks" in the crosshairs. Earmarks are the pet spending items members of Congress request -- and which are often slipped into massive appropriations bills behind closed conference committee doors or in the dead of night. These projects are currently not subject to individual up-or-down votes.

And while there are many other areas -- including tax and regulatory reform -- that would save taxpayers exponentially more than earmark reform, bringing transparency and accountability to this process is an important area where strange ideological bedfellows can join forces.

And this remains for me the most interesting thing about the moves to slice the pork: the way they cut across party lines. Among the competing anti-pork legislation currently jockeying for position in Congress is a Senate bill proposed by John McCain and Tom Coburn and cosponsored by Russ Feingold and Evan Bayh, another introduced by Trent Lott and Diane Feinstein, and a House bill cosponsored by Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Harold Ford.

The bills vary in scope, strictness and the degree of transparency they require, but they all recognize that something needs to be done to derail the corporate welfare gravy train.

You know something interesting is afoot when Tom Coburn and Barack Obama -- and in the blogosphere, TruthLaidBear and Instapundit -- are all pushing the same issue.

Even President Bush can see the writing on the wall and has added his voice to the earmark reform mix -- although his one-line mention of the issue in his State of the Union ("I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform, because the federal budget has too many special interest projects") was as laughable as it was brief. Bush railing against special interest politics is about as believable as, well, Bush railing against our addiction to oil.

Speaking of laughable, coverage of pork barrel spending invariably includes a hit parade of all the ludicrous-sounding earmarks our duly-elected representatives have been able to get approved by their fellow duly-elected representatives. Last year's punchline-worthy spending appropriations included $139,000 for maple research in Vermont, $591,000 for peanut research in Alabama, $10 million to the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, $384,000 for weed control research in North Dakota, and $100,000 to build ice skating rinks in Toledo, Ohio.

Ha. Ha.

But of course, the joke is on us. Earmarks are just another symbol of a political system that has veered wildly out of control. A rotting system in which the founding democratic principle of "one man, one vote" has been replaced by the new math of special interests: thousands of lobbyists plus multimillions of dollars equals access and influence out of the reach of ordinary citizens.

And, no surprise, things have only gotten worse since the GOP came riding into power under the banner of reform.

McCain, who has been at the forefront of this fight for a long time, told a Senate hearing earlier this month that earmarks had gone from 4,126 in 1994 (the year a certain Contract was offered to the American people) to 15,877 in 2005.

Following the money, we see that this nearly 300 percent increase in earmarking has coincided with a nearly 300 percent increase in the number of lobbying firms seeking appropriations -- which went from 1,447 in 1998 to 4,013 in 2005. Isn't it interesting how that works? And disgusting?

Dick Durbin closed the loop on why this corruption has become such an entrenched part of our system: "Why is it that we warm up to all these lobbyists? It isn't for a meal. We know when it comes time to finance our campaigns, we're going to be knocking on those same doors."

The so-far-unsuccessful fight to kill corporate welfare has been a long one. In a column I wrote back in 1997 about a similar effort -- one joining Grover Norquist and Ralph Nader -- then-House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich told me: "Republicans shouldn't blow it. We have the opportunity to capture the corporate welfare issue from liberals the way they captured the crime issue from us." He said doing so would take "an unrelenting effort and an unstoppable drumbeat."

Well, Kasich is now a TV host, that drumbeat quickly faded, and Republicans have not only failed to capture the issue, they have made it much, much, much worse.

And in doing so, they have handed the Democrats a great wedge issue -- a chance to peel away from the GOP coalition those in-more-than-name-only conservative voters who are sick and tired of watching the government continue to grow and grow and grow, while the special interest pigs continue to fatten themselves at the public trough.

Are the Democrats up to the challenge?