Watch out, it's pork season for Congress

It's time for that annual ritual known as March Madness. No, this March Madness isn't about college basketball. It's about how much money Congress plans to attach to appropriations bills to curry favor back home with their pet projects.

This is the Democrats' first opportunity now that they're back in the majority to prove they meant it when they promised to do things differently. This after 12 years of Republican control in Congress and its failure to do anything about the misspending it derided when Democrats ran the place before.

My favorite Washington watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste, has just published its annual "Pig Book," which chronicles some of the most outrageous and wasteful government spending.

After seven years of record-setting pork, the "2007 Congressional Pig Book" reports a decline in pork spending, thanks largely to Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who prevented nine appropriations bills from being enacted last December.

Some credit also goes to two Democrats, David Obey of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and the king of pork, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, both of whom imposed a moratorium on earmarks for the remainder of fiscal 2007.

This is a new fiscal year, and pork to a member of Congress is like a chocolate cream pie to someone on a diet. The temptation can be too great to resist.

The biggest temptation to lard on more pork - and thus an indication of just how serious the Democrats are about real spending reform - will come as soon as Congress takes up the president's war supplemental appropriations bill. President Bush has proposed $99.6 billion in supplemental spending for the global war on terror and an additional $3.4 billion for reconstruction related to Hurricane Katrina.

Brian Riedl of The Heritage Foundation says among the rumored add-ons are between $5 billion and $7 billion in farm subsidies (even though farm incomes are at record highs), $1 billion for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, $1 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (I thought Joe Kennedy and Hugo Chavez were helping with that) and many more questionable expenditures that manage to find their way into appropriations bills, even when there are supposed to be spending caps. Congress brags about its spending caps, but it knows how to get around them. It merely declares an "emergency" and spends the money on what it wants.

Last March, Congress attached $14 billion in additional unrelated spending to the president's war on terror supplemental bill, but after a credible veto threat by President Bush, Congress relented and removed the pork.

Citizens Against Government Waste estimates Congress saved between $12 billion and $15 billion last year by eliminating more than 7,000 earmarks. Unfortunately, it wasn't a real saving because members spent the money on other programs.

Here are just two examples of the kind of stuff taxpayers need to watch out for from last year's budget because they could be back this year: $1.19 billion for 20 F-22A fighter jets. Last summer, according to the watchdog group, "the General Accounting Office sent a 13-page letter to then-House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young, urging Congress to stop funding the jets due to their high cost and the fact that the aircraft is out of date."

Such things never deter Congress when it spends other people's money. There's much more waste in the Defense Department budget, which can be found in detail in the "Pig Book" at cagw.org.

A personal favorite is $4.5 million in last year's budget for Homeland Security for the misnamed Secure Border Coordination Office. This would be money well spent if it actually made the border more secure, but no one seems to have the political will to do what is necessary to achieve a secure southern border.

There's so much more and it's all in the "Pig Book" and on the Heritage Web site (heritage.org). If you care how your money is often misspent and want to keep the Democrats from following the Republicans, who followed the Democrats in larding up appropriations bills, you will inform yourself and act accordingly.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.

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