Friday, August 13, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Candidates against pork

Utter the words “earmarks,” “federal spending” or “pork barrel” and everyone’s blood pressure rises, which accounts for some irrational political behavior in 2010. Sensing the great public concern about the mushrooming national debt and the anger over absurd earmarks like the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” the Republican leadership in Congress recommends that the party’s candidates this year vow not to do earmarks for their districts or states. Polls show that it is a big winner.

All the Arkansas candidates have obliged. Rep. John Boozman of Rogers, the party’s nominee for the U. S. Senate, promises to forego any earmarks for Arkansas, although he is vague about whether that is forever or only until the public mood changes.

Tim Griffin, the GOP candidate for Congress from the Second District, says he won’t ask for federal dollars for any project in his district.

There is nothing irrational about the public alarm over budget deficits that are running at $1.3 trillion a year and will stay in that territory until the economy strengthens and Congress faces up to the need for more revenues and restraint. It will take both. But that is different from declaring unilateral disarmament for your district or state, which is what Boozman and Griffin are doing. Earmarks are not going to end, and shouldn’t, and any congressman who says he won’t seek help for his district is doing his people a great disservice. Or lying.

Until this year, Boozman was the busiest earmark champion in the Arkansas delegation. For nearly 10 years he has flooded the media with news releases announcing federal dollars for projects in northwest Arkansas. His predecessor, John Paul Hammerschmidt, was one of Congress’ greediest members, bringing home tens of millions of dollars of assistance every year, for the construction of superhighways (Interstate 540 from Alma to Bella Vista, the John Paul Hammerschmidt Highway), bridges, parks, river and sanitation projects and medical facilities. Together, Hammerschmidt, Boozman and Arkansas’ senators, principally Dale Bumpers and Blanche Lincoln, turned northwest Arkansas into one of the most economically vibrant regions in the country.

Rep. Vic Snyder has not done badly in the Second District. In 13 years, he has earmarked $120 million for projects at and around Little Rock Air Force Base and other military facilities in Pulaski County, which have had a huge economic impact on the community. Two years ago, he obtained $10.6 million to match Jacksonville city funds to build a college education facility outside the base to serve military personnel and civilians.

Owing partly to federal funds secured by Snyder and the state’s senators going back 20 years, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has become a world-class hospital and research center.

Tim Griffin says there will be no more help for the air base or the Second District if he is elected. Let them spend that money in Iowa, Connecticut or California.

You would be hard pressed to find a single piece of “pork barrel” in Arkansas that would not stand strict scrutiny for its social and economic value.

If your party was responsible for the two most famous boondoggles of the era, the Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere and the domed tropical rainforest in Iowa, perhaps you would be distancing yourself from earmarks, too. Congress had earmarked $398 million for the bridge from little Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Island, where 50 people lived and commuted by ferry. Public outrage over Sen. Ted Stevens’ and Rep. Don Young’s project caused Congress to halt funding in 2006, although Gov. Sarah Palin took the money already sent to the state for the bridge and built a superhighway to nowhere instead of returning it to the treasury.

The author of the giant domed tropical rainforest on the Iowa plains was Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on Senate Finance.

Those projects turned public opinion around on earmarks. Formerly, what you brought home from Washington was the biggest factor in re-election.

It should never have been so, and the back- scratching system made the federal capital-improvement system easy to abuse.

Congress last year swore off and under pressure from President Obama has introduced both restraint and logic. A senior congressman from Alaska does not automatically get federal dollars for anything he proposes. There is a standard of national scrutiny.

Sen. Lincoln says she will not stop seeking money for Arkansas projects because the state does not compete with states like California, Georgia and many others for defense contracts and other public works. Earmarks — a tiny part of the federal budget — are the only way for Arkansas to get a small share.

Rep. Boozman, we suspect, does not have his heart in it. His office tells local governments beseeching his help that he can’t do it this year because of his pledge to the Republican leadership to campaign on the no-earmarks pledge and that they should go to Sen. Lincoln to get it done.