Call it Pork or Necessity, but Alaska Comes Out Far Above the Rest in Spending

By DAVID E. ROSENBAUM (NYT) 979 words
Published: November 21, 2004

Toward the bottom of the 16-inch stack of paper called the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 is a list of grants for communities in Alaska: $950,000 for a recreation center and $150,000 for a botanical garden in Anchorage, $300,000 for a senior center in Fairbanks, $1 million for housing upgrades in the Kenai Peninsula, $900,000 for an aquarium in Ketchikan, $525,000 for a quarry upgrade in Nome and many more.

No one on the outside knows for sure how grants for special projects like these -- called earmarks in the Congressional lexicon and pork barrel by critics -- got into the $388 billion spending bill that cleared Congress on Saturday. But it is a safe bet that Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, in his final year as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was responsible for most of these.

Now in his 36th year in the Senate, longer than any other Republican, Mr. Stevens, who turned 81 on Thursday, is the master at bringing home the goods. Since 1997, when he became chairman of the committee, which has jurisdiction over nearly all government spending except automatic benefits like Social Security, per capita federal spending in Alaska has grown by more than 50 percent, to nearly $12,000 last year, by far the highest in the country and almost double the national average.

Mr. Stevens was busy managing the legislation on the Senate floor on Saturday and could not be reached for comment, but in the past he, like most others in Congress, has said he is proud of all he has been able to accomplish for his constituents.

In fact, every state and almost every Congressional district received money for special projects in this bill. But there is no doubt that influential lawmakers obtained more for their states and districts than did back-benchers.

The mammoth bill was written behind closed doors and did not become public until Saturday morning. Across the city, reporters, lobbyists and interest groups scrambled all day to determine just what was in the legislation, but no one, not even the main lawmakers involved, has a full sense of what it contains.

Keith Ashdown, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a private, nonpartisan watchdog group, said he found 11,772 earmarked special projects in the measure that cost a total of $15,780,623,000. That is about 4 percent of the overall spending in the bill.

Lawmakers say they know better than bureaucrats in Washington what is needed in the communities they visit regularly. Critics say grants should be made on the basis of merit, not politics.

''No one is saying these are bad projects,'' said David E. Williams, a vice president of Citizens Against Government Waste, another watchdog group on spending matters. ''What we are saying is that the process is chaos. Instead of having projects go through the competitive vetting process by experts in the agencies, Congress is deciding what needs to be spent where.''

Little criticism like this is heard from the lawmakers themselves. Instead of the partisan back-stabbing found in almost everything else Congress does nowadays, back-scratching across party lines is the order of the day when it comes to awarding special projects.

The chief exception is Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, the self-appointed sentry in the Senate on bad spending practices. On the Senate floor Saturday he called the bill ''one big fat turkey.''

''But this bird is not loaded with the traditional stuffing,'' Mr. McCain said. ''It is packed with pork.''

''We're sending the signal,'' he said, ''that it is more important for us to be able to issue press releases -- and I'm sure hundreds of them will be going out today -- about how much pork we've been able to get for our states and districts'' than it is to promote ''good government and fiscal responsibility.''

When Mr. McCain sat down, no senator rose to challenge him.

One expenditure buried in the bill is $2 million for the Navy to repurchase the presidential yacht Sequoia. The yacht was built in 1925 and first used by President Herbert Hoover. In the throes of Watergate, President Richard M. Nixon cruised the Potomac at night on the boat and brooded on his fate.

When President Jimmy Carter was trying to rid the White House of an imperial image, he had the yacht sold to a private group for $286,000. Ever since, it has been rented out for private parties.

Because there was no debate on the matter, there is no way to know whether President Bush wants the yacht and, if so, what he plans to do with it.

The agriculture section of the legislation has hundreds of special research grants totaling more than $100 million. Among them are grants to study berries in Alaska, wine in Washington, hydroponic tomatoes in Ohio and maple syrup in Vermont.

Other grants compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense included $25,000 for schools in Las Vegas to study the development of mariachi music; $300,000 to Missoula, Mont., for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, $1 million to Texas for the World Birding Center; $250,000 to Nashville for the Country Music Hall of Fame; and $100,000 to Punxsutawney, Pa., for a weather museum.

Chart: ''Alaska's Friend in Congress''
Alaska has ranked first in federal spending per capita on specially earmarked projects over the last four years. The state's senior senator, Ted Stevens, a Republican, is finishing his term as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

FISCAL YEAR: 2000
TOTAL EARMARK SPENDING: $394.5 million
EARMARK SPENDING PER CAPITA: $637

FISCAL YEAR: 2001
TOTAL EARMARK SPENDING: 480.3
EARMARK SPENDING PER CAPITA: 766

FISCAL YEAR: 2002
TOTAL EARMARK SPENDING: 451.3
EARMARK SPENDING PER CAPITA: 711

FISCAL YEAR: 2003
TOTAL EARMARK SPENDING: 393.3
EARMARK SPENDING PER CAPITA: 611

FISCAL YEAR: 2004
TOTAL EARMARK SPENDING: 524.3
EARMARK SPENDING PER CAPITA: 808

(Source by Citizens Against Government Waste)