It takes real skill to spot the hidden pork packed into Congressional bills. Some of it is easy to spot, like the $20,000 new car for a Justice Department official rolled into the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill.
But that’s the easy stuff. The art of finding the billions in special interest funding sliding through Congress is tricky. Much of it is hidden, with the names of beneficiaries expunged so it’s hard to spot who gets the pork or even the sponsoring member of Congress. The art form was exercised in expert form in a legendary 1988 series that won a Pulitzer.
“The Great Tax Giveaway,” by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele was a 50,000 word series run in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the eve of the April tax deadline a quarter-century ago. It still stands as the premier expose detailing how Congress not only spends billions in pork, but also can hide it where it is virtually invisible.
The Philly series comes up in the wake of claims that the Sandy relief bill includes pork that has nothing to do with the disaster, and will be spent far away from torn-up areas far into the future.
Ron Meyer of American Majority Action claimed only $1 out of every $6 authorized by the bill would be spent in the coming year, and that he could already spot five percent bound for “non-relief-related pork.” He cited a new roof for Washington’s Smithsonian as an example.
How little things change. Other experts say that pork lurks readily, awaiting an emergency spending bill that will give it cover, often at the very end of a Congressional term when, in the words Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, it boards the “last train to leave the station.”
He points to $150 million in Sandy funding, for fishery disaster areas in Mississippi and Alaska. Such money is spent, benefiting the economy, but with a special focus in mind, limiting that benefit.
“Every disaster is an opportunity to lard a relief bill with pork,” declared the Fiscal Times, noting horse-trading where a single member of Congress seeks to get broad support by befriending another member’s bill. It cites the Katrina relief package in 2005, which included eight projects in Nevada for that state’s Senator Harry Reid, now the Democratic majority leader. But pork is a bi-partisan proposition. The same bill carried $12.9 million bound for New Mexico, home to Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.
“This is how Congress tries to get in their priorities… there is no regular order anymore,” Craig Jennings, manager of contracting at OMB Watch, told the Fiscal Times. He added that the current gridlock in Congress makes it impossible to run spending through normal appropriations routes. He cited the example of Congressional Republicans who are willing to refuse to pass regular appropriations in order to get what they want.
“They don’t make it easy to find this stuff,” noted Ellis of the special interest spending. “You have to know what you’re looking for to see it.”
We’ll go back 25 years to look for it — to Bartlett and Steele, who noted how the 1986 Tax Reform Act of the Reagan era was packed with billions in super-secret lard while masquerading as a measure to control spending. The “Great Tax Giveaway,” they concluded, was a clandestine process that benefited individuals with enough pull to get a friendly member of Congress to manufacture a tax break worded especially for them.
The two reporters found scores of bizarre passages in a “technical corrections bill” written after the Reform Act in which tortured phrases concealed the lucky beneficiaries.
The pair, to simplify a very complex process for readers, turned to their editor, Steve Lovelady, whom they said conceived the following opening paragraphs of their series. They are so remarkable that we’ll revisit them now:
“Imagine, if you will, that you are a tall, bald, father of three living in a northeast Philadelphia rowhouse and selling aluminum siding door-to-door for a living.
“Imagine that you go to your congressman and ask him to insert a provision in the federal tax code that exempts tall, bald fathers of three living in northeast Philadelphia and selling aluminum siding for a living from paying taxes on income from door-to-door sales.
“Imagine further that your Congressman cooperates, writes that exemption and inserts it into pending legislation. And that Congress actually passes it into law.
“Lots of luck.”
Most folks don’t get that kind of break or have that kind of pull, the two writers noted. “But some people do.”
To hide the beneficiaries and sponsors, the legislation was written to avoid names but worded to benefit only one taxpayer. They cited the case of Mrs. Joseph J. Ballard Jr., widow of a prominent Texas businessman. The piece of pork written to avoid naming her referred to the widow of someone “who resided in Terrant County, Texas and died Oct. 28, 1983 at the age of 75, with a gross estate exceeding $12.5 million, and the individual is the decedent’s surviving spouse.”
Bartlett and Steele detailed scores of such cases, locating the lucky taxpayer. How special it is to have a friend in Congress — then and now.
The writer (email@example.com ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.