When President Obama signed the landmark $787 billion stimulus package, he proudly declared that he did not allow any members of Congress to insert wasteful, last-minute earmarks in their bills to benefit special interests in their states and districts. Dubbed "pork barrel" spending, these earmarks are notorious in Washington, perhaps the most infamous example being the $385 million "Bridge to Nowhere" for Alaska inserted into a 2005 transportation bill by the now-disgraced Sen. Ted Stevens.
But with or without earmarks -- and despite what Obama said -- special-interest spending has found its way into the stimulus in massive doses, budget watchers contend. "We were told this was going to be a massive infrastructure spending program," says Veronique De Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. She argues that the bill is overflowing not with needed infrastructure spending, but with hundreds of billions in pork.
Now the majority of the $787 billion isn't pork. Indeed, tax relief alone makes up some 34 percent of the bill. Where you might find the pork is in the so-called discretionary spending portion of the bill, which amount to $308 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of that money, $48 billion goes to the Department of Transportation for various rail and road projects to repair and expand infrastructure. That leaves about $260 billion of discretionary spending that goes to various federal agencies, as well as to state and local governments. How much of that amount helps special interests instead of the economy as a whole? That depends, of course, on what you consider a special interest. But decide for yourself. Here is a list of some of the most controversial individual pieces of discretionary spending that might have the pleasant taste of pork.
1) Green golf carts. Ever rode a "neighborhood electric vehicle?" Well, you might want to now. The stimulus includes a tax credit toward the purchase of NEVs, which closely resemble golf carts in appearance. They are considered green vehicles because they use an electric battery instead of gasoline. You fill it up with juice by plugging it into a home electrical outlet. Don't expect to be able to take your NEV far outside of your neighborhood, though. Federal regulations limit their top speed to between 20 and 25 miles per hour. Freeway cruising is out.
Those aren't the only green vehicles getting stimulus subsidies. There is also $300 million to buy "green" cars for federal employees.
2) Closing the ice-breaking gap. The U.S. Coast Guard is getting a shot in the arm from the stimulus, thanks to $98 million for a "polar icebreaker." That's not a new gum flavor, but a ship. The service currently has three ice-breaking ships able to sail through the frozen Arctic Ocean, but it wants a new and improved one to upgrade the aging fleet. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, testified before a House panel last summer that icebreakers are needed for national security reasons. "Russia, Germany, China, Sweden and Canada are all investing and maintaining and expanding their national ice-breaking capacity," he said.
3) Homeland security stimulus. That pricey icebreaker is just one of several examples of homeland and national security spending contained in the stimulus not directly connected to restoration of the economy. There is also $200 million to "design and furnish" the Department of Homeland Security headquarters. De Rugy says that security spending should be considered by Congress in bills related to security, not the economy. "There was no debating these things on the merits," she says.
4) Clean Coal. While Obama has stressed the number of "green jobs" his stimulus will create, $3.4 billion of the $787 billion will be spent on old-school, non-green energy technology. That's how much goes to the Fossil Energy Research and Development program, a Department of Energy project that, among other things, seeks to reduce the amount of carbon emitted by the use of fossil fuels. Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, says that most of this money will go toward the development of clean-coal technology. "The goal is to develop a technology that can capture carbon dioxide from coal in a coal-fired power plant," he says. And where's the stimulus in clean coal? Weiss says that we won't see the results of this investment anytime soon, and $3.4 billion is probably only a fraction of what is needed for real clean-coal technology to ever be achieved. But, he adds, in the short term, "this would create research jobs and jobs at power plants." That isn't stopping critics from calling this fossil energy provision pork.
5) Mystery Meat. It's hard to know just how much pork there is in the stimulus package for one simple reason: We still don't know how exactly a huge chunk of it will be spent. A whopping $144 billion from the bill is flowing directly to state and local governments. That means the true amount of pork will depend on the priorities of your governors, legislatures, and mayors. The best guesses for what this money will be spent on might be in a list of "ready-to-go" projects released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January, dubbed the "Main Street Economic Recovery." Some of the most outlandish of these projects -- such as an $886,000 36-hole disc golf course in Austin, Texas -- won't be allowed to receive stimulus dollars because the bill explicitly says that none of its funds can be used for "any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool."
But a prohibition on funding toward any "stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project" was dropped from the final version of the bill. That means that many other porky projects from the U.S. Conference of Mayors report are open to get money. That includes $150 million for parking improvements at a Little League facility in Cidra, Puerto Rico, and $6 million for a "snowmaking and maintenance facility" at Spirit Mountain ski area in Duluth, Minnesota.
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