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Hogs at the public trough


How Washington Wastes Your Money and Why They Won't Stop

By Brian Kelly,

Illustrated by Pat Oliphant

Villard Books, $23

Reviewed by Bill Thomas

They call the U.S. Congress "the world's most deliberative body." But the phrase overlooks more than two centuries worth of excess fat and slobbering greed. Capitol Hill lawmakers want to be seen as selfless statesmen dedicated to saving resources and serving the public good. Adventures in Porkland makes a convincing case that just the opposite is true.

According to the author, Washington Post editor Brian Kelly, we should forget the fancy metaphors and picture members of Congress as they really are: money-grubbing pigs, with their snouts buried so deep in the appropriations trough it's a wonder they can breathe.

While it's not exactly big news to learn what egregious oinkers we've put in office, watching them in action is a civics lesson that's hard to forget.

"Pork" is the generic term applied to congressional spending for a variety of costly and usually needless federal projects, time-honored kickbacks that keep voters happy and make the guy who delivers the goods look like he's doing his job. From a Lawrence Welk museum in North Dakota to a four-lane highway between two West Virginia hick towns _ a recent gift to constituents from the Senate's porker-in-chief Robert Byrd _ pork-barrel legislation is the preferred lubricant of Hill politics and invariably a total waste of tax revenue. How big a waste?

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has funneled tens of millions of dollars into his state for a project to harness the energy of the aurora borealis.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter saved the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard from extinction by forcing the Navy to rehabilitate an aircraft carrier it wanted to mothball. The cost to taxpayers: $700-million.

Ohio congressman Ralph Regula got the house to earmark $350,000 to purchase the home of President William McKinley's in-laws, fix it up and donate it to his state.

The list of pet projects is endless for the simple reason that smart lawmakers know people remember them for spending money, not saving it.

"All politics is local," said former House Speaker Tip O'Neill. And for members of Congress, payoffs in the form of pork are the best way to convince the folks at home to send them back for more.

Kelly quotes Bill Frenzel, a former congressman from Minnesota:

"The machine can't be turned off," said Frenzel. "Congress is set up to fund causes it favors and is then rewarded for funding them. The system has helped create a spending machine. Once something gets in the budget, it stays. The attitude is that if one program falls, all are in danger. So you get this institutional log-rolling. And I'm not talking about just "I trade you my vote for support on this bill.' It's the whole place saying each member must defend every other member's spending or he runs the risk of losing his."

Kelly has written an entertaining and informative book about why government costs so much. And just in case it makes you mad enough to want to do something about it, there's a postcard included that you can mail to your congressmen.

Bill Thomas, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is writing a book about Capital Hill for Scribner's. He's the co-author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia, just published by Dutton.