When Pork Meets Barrel

Sometimes worthwhile social programs get the axe

Damon Hodge

"We got money for war, but can't feed the poor."

—Tupac Shakur

Pork: It's what's for dinner on Capitol Hill. Consider: 538 projects tucked into a 1991 federal transportation bill, 1,800 in the 1998 transportation bill and, in this year's House-passed omnibus appropriations bill, 8,000 projects tabbed at $10.7 billion, with several billion more in potential earmarks.

That can be both good and bad outside the Beltway. Good for incumbents and constituent-minded pols who funnel pork back to the crib. Like Republican Congressman Jim Gibbons, who earmarked $225,000 (in an $820 million bill) for a pool is his native Sparks, creating homespun goodwill but earning Citizens Against Government Waste's December 2003 porker of the month award. When pork is bad, it can siphon money from social programs reliant on federal support.

Which brings us to domestic-violence assistance. Vetting through $105 million in funding requests this year the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women only had $39.3 million to give, leaving domestic-abuse programs throughout the country in a financial lurch. Among the dissed is Nevada, whose $371,000 request was denied over concerns about weaknesses in the application.

The lost funding could signal worsening times for a state that's already the fourth worst in terms of women killed by men. Of the 141 homicides investigated by Metro last year, 15 percent were related to domestic violence; Metro also fielded 19,608 domestic violence-related calls, nearly 2,000 more than in 2001. State programs providing thousands of women with legal and other assistance will either drastically curtail services or might shutter completely. Clark County Legal Services, which provides legal assistance to battered women, assisted 1,003 women in 2003, up 608 in 2001.

Justice Department officials didn't respond to requests for comments on this story.

Tom Schatz,president of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste, backs the competitive application process—programs shouldn't be funded if they can't produce results—but decries pork's drain on resources available for social programs.

"There was $22.9 billion in pork in Fiscal 2004 ... this clearly takes away from programs that should be funded or funded at a higher level. But lawmakers like these projects, and I'm sure Sen. (Harry) Reid (D-Nev.) will steer even more projects to Nevada," says Schatz. "You can always find some [pork] in a spending bill. If Congress hadn't spent $50 million to build, say, an indoor rain forest in Iowa, they would have money for women who are victims of domestic violence in Nevada."

As a portion of overall federal spending, pork is small, "but it's not money they're [lawmakers] likely to give up," Schatz says. "They want to have plenty of that money for projects so they can run back home and cut ribbons. It's a self-reinforcing process, and many constituents don't know what's pork and what's not."

One way out is restoring the line-item veto, which Schatz says would work if lawmakers could craft a constitutionally sound law. More pie in the sky-ish: slashing national debt, which requires a $320 billion annual interest payment. "We could certainly fund more programs if our national deficit was smaller."

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