Washington’s new frugality will make it harder to get Colorado pork

John McCain made getting rid of earmarks a centerpiece of his presidential campaign in 2008. Wasteful government spending as exemplified by expenditures that never had to compete on their merits was mentioned in seemingly every speech he made during the campaign.

I never subscribed to the theory that all of our many fiscal problems could be solved by eliminating the $17 billion or so in earmarks that bloat appropriations bills every year. Not that I supported them. I dislike them as much as the next guy, but get rid of all of them and you still have plenty of budgetary problems left to deal with.

In fact, I never even subscribed to calling them “earmarks.” I’ve always preferred the term that preceded “earmark.” Back in the day, they were known by the much more colorful “pork-barrel projects.” Indeed, that is what they were — the bacon congressmen brought home. If they brought home enough of it, they could assure themselves re-election.

John Salazar made no pretenses whatsoever about his role as a congressman. He once told the editorial board of The Daily Sentinel that his primary duty as a congressman was to bring federal money back to his district. What better way to do that than pork?

Salazar did a pretty good job of it. In his last year in office, before being defeated by Republican Scott Tipton, who has vowed to shun earmarks, Salazar brought $30.5 million worth of pork to the 3rd Congressional District of Colorado. Most of it went to hospitals, colleges, municipalities and law enforcement agencies.

One can argue it was tainted money since the merits of those projects never had to be debated. They were never subjected to an up or down vote themselves. They were simply appropriations that Salazar attached to other bills. Salazar did what virtually every other member of Congress did, with the exception of John McCain and perhaps a handful of others.

One can also argue the money went to worthwhile projects. Just because it was pork, doesn’t mean it was wasted money. The projects simply weren’t debated on their merits. In fact, some of them, probably most of them, were worthwhile initiatives.

Salazar took a very matter-of-fact approach to pork. He argued that if we didn’t get it, somebody else would. I suspect he was correct. If the $30 million Salazar found for the 3rd District hadn’t been spent here, I doubt it would have meant the federal budget would have been $30 million smaller.

But Congress, in its newfound frugality, seems to be serious now about doing away with pork-barrel spending.

Both of Colorado’s senators have signed on to the Reduce Unnecessary Government Spending Act. That bill would give the president the ability to eliminate, on a line-by-line basis, anything he wanted to in any appropriations bill. So if a member of Congress sticks some pork into an appropriations bill, the president can simply say he won’t fund it.

Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall are new converts to the anti-pork crowd. Udall managed to bring home $42.6 million in pork last year before seeing the light this year, and Bennet sent nearly $49 million to his constituents.

The Reduce Unnecessary Government Spending Act is more than a little disingenuous. It’s not a bad thing if you’re opposed to pork. But the manner in which it is structured gives incumbent Congress members political cover if they need it. They can still put pork into a bill. That way, if the president takes it out, they can still tell their constituents they did everything they could to get federal dollars for their pet projects.

Scott Titpon, though, would have a problem doing that. He made it clear, nearly as clear as John McCain did three years ago, that he is opposed to pork-barrel spending. Period. If he sticks to what he campaigned on, he won’t be able to tell his 3rd District constituents he did everything he could to get federal money to the district. At least he won’t be able to use the traditional earmark approach.

Tipton will have to find new ways to get his — and our — share of the federal pie.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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