Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kirsten Gillibrand's Pork Problem

Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand understands how to get re-elected in the traditional Washington, D.C. way: Buy people and institutions off with federal tax dollars.

Congressional Republicans, my former employers for five years, presided over an explosion in pork barrel spending, also known as earmarks, while they held the majority from 1995-2007. It was a disgrace. Especially watching it up close as a Capitol Hill press secretary and communications director.

Earmarks were part of the reason why Democrats defeated Republicans to take the majority in the House and Senate two years ago. Fiscal conservatives grew increasingly disgusted with the unaccountable and out-of-control process. And rightly blamed Republicans.

President Reagan vetoed the 1987 transportation authorization bill because it contained 152 earmarks. In May, 2007 Gillibrand announced that she requested funding for an astounding 188 earmarks totaling $297 million. The following December she issued a news release noting that 32 earmarks for "local projects" totaling $19 million would be funded by an omnibus spending bill.

Of the 32 projects, Congresswoman Gillibrand "won" $122,500 for the Hudson Opera House Community and Arts Center for "renovations to the building." And another $750,000 went to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum to "complete infrastructure modernization projects."

While Congresswoman Gillibrand succeeded in delighting Figaro fans, she earned the wrath of the Washington, D.C. taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. In a "pork alert" the group ridiculed Gillibrand's Roosevelt library earmark as "among the most egregious examples of pork-barreling" in the House.

"I think investing in the library is very important for the economy of Dutchess County," Gillibrand said, ludicrously.

From Day One in office, Congresswoman Gillibrand has eagerly joined the ranks of House members who simply can't control themselves. It's obvious what The Gillibrand Pork Doctrine is: Say Yes To Everything. No individual or group is seemingly off-limits.

It's impossible for Congresswoman Gillibrand to reach an informed decision on the merits of every earmark request she makes. Equally dubious is how personally instrumental she is in obtaining the funding she obsessively announces. From reading the news releases her office distributes, one could easily conclude she's the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee rather than a typical freshman.

Both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress have a near-pathological inability to say no to their constituents when the "project" is a complete waste of federal money. A fellow press secretary for a House member once told me her boss requested funding for a constituent group researching UFOs. Yes, tax dollars in search of little green people.

Congresswoman Gillibrand is part of this intractable problem in Washington, D.C. She possesses a pork barrel ideology that puts the average pork-laden Member of Congress to shame. If all 535 Members asked for her 188 earmarks it would amount to 100,580 requests draining the federal treasury of billions.

In fiscal year 2008, Congress approved 11,610 earmarks worth $17.2 billion. That was a 337 percent increase over the 2,658 projects in fiscal year 2007, and a 30 percent increase over the $13.2 billion total in fiscal year 2007.

Fortunately, there are principled Members of Congress who don't request earmarks because they are repulsed by the unseemly nature of the process. Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, for example.

And there are the Kirsten Gillibrands, who not only refuse to follow the Flake standard but relish the vote-buying potential in pork. She has the UFO-mentality and can't say no to anyone who bangs on her door with a tin cup.

Gillibrand understands local governments are not going to turn down one penny from Congress, even when they have no need for it. For example, homeland security bills routinely send tax dollars to small fire departments in rural counties nationwide. The Congresswoman has issued news release after news release hailing the funding acquired by those fire departments in her district.

What Congresswoman Gillibrand will never tell upstate fire department chiefs is the truth. That al-Qaeda is not targeting them. Ever. And up goes the pork tab for taxpayers.

Congresswoman Gillibrand defends her earmarks by claiming she makes them public. So what. She reminds me of the character Matthew Lesko in the late-night infomercial who runs around Capitol Hill in a ridiculous suit covered with dollar signs screaming about how to extract money from the federal government.

If Congresswoman Gillibrand wins a second term this Tuesday part of the reason will be her successful raiding of the federal treasury. She's become a princess of pork, and given the fiscal crisis we're mired in right now that's not an admirable quality for any Member of Congress.