October 21, 2003,
Before taking up the $87 billion war package this month, Congress passed and President Bush signed a spending bill that contained $1.9 billion in emergency funding. Fiscal conservatives would hope that such emergency money would be set aside before the rainy day, but we're at war and they are legitimate expenses the president was asking Congress to fund.
In Texas and Cape Canaveral, NASA and other federal agencies were stretched to the limit in investigating the causes of the Columbia space-shuttle disaster. In Arizona and much of the West, firefighters and park rangers were crying for needed help in fighting the fires that were destroying homes and causing floods there.
In Pennsylvania, though, there was a different sort of emergency. The danger signs could be seen on the cover of National Review and the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. It could be seen in a rising enthusiasm among grassroots conservatives.
It had become clear that Senator Arlen Specter's (R., Pa.) job was in danger, and that he was at the mercy of Pennsylvania Republicans who actually wanted to nominate a real conservative Congressman Pat Toomey.
In fear that tropical storm Toomey might develop into a hurricane, Sen. Specter, using his high perch on the Appropriations Committee, and casting aside the agonizing about deficits he had displayed whenever faced with tax cuts, shipped some pork back home.
In this emergency-spending bill, Specter packed in $1.4 million pet projects for the home state. Among these, he sneaked in $1 million to help establish autism treatment centers. The nobility of autism-treatment centers aside, such money is not, in any sense emergency spending.
Specter could have tried to work the cash into the regular spending bill in his charge, which includes the Department of Health and Human Services. Instead he circumvented standard channels and stuck this item into a bill that could not be vetoed or blocked because of the real emergencies it was addressing.
Another $400,000 went to an oral-hygiene outreach program and a Pittsburgh hospital, also unauthorized, undebated, and undiscussed.
Discussions of pork are only secondarily about whether or not Specter should be allowed to force Omaha's taxpayers to finance Philadelphia's indigent. They are primarily about good government. Specter's three items were never subject to the sort of debate, review and compromise that earmarks would undergo in a standard spending bill.
After lawyers and bankers, the chief patrons of Specter's campaigns are from the healthcare sector. In the past two years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the health sector has given Specter $722,574.
Biomedical bosses and hospital executive are among Specter's most-generous donors. Nobody can blame them either, given his willingness to skirt standard procedure in funneling money to their businesses.
Such cavalier attitude with taxpayer money is standard fare for Specter, though. In 2002, National Taxpayers' Union gave him a C-minus. That same year, he scored a 49 percent on National Journal's fiscal conservatism scale. Specter's lifetime score with Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) is a dismal 52 percent.
Much of Specter's reaction to the Toomey challenge has been to tack right and defuse the attacks on Specter's liberal record. But his performance in late September was not so pleasing to conservatives or taxpayers.
CAGW has handed Specter its "Porker of the Month" award, an honor usually bestowed on the likes of waste and patronage kings Robert Byrd and Bill Young. Specter has shown this year that he's fairly capable of playing many roles. To please the Right, he plays the conservative. But, in the face of this emergency, he's shown that he's not above the oldest way of buying votes: good, old-fashioned pork.
Timothy P. Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.