Golden age for politicians bringing home bacon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2002, 12:00am

POWER, POLITICS AND prestige - the three Ps are important to understanding life in Washington. But don't forgot pork-barrelling, the most important.

The good old bacon represents the cash, moving from congressional districts and special interest groups to that classic Washington creature - the lobbyist - and back out in the form of federal hand-outs in one form or another.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the patriotic myth suggests Americans have pulled together, putting material considerations to one side for the greater good.

Special-interest lobbying, some hoped, would wither given the great issues facing the nation. Instead, the reverse has happened. The smell of pork has rarely been richer in Washington as all manner of groups seek extra funds to deal with the new terrorist threat, some brazenly wrapping themselves in the stars and stripes flag.

Some were obvious. The airline industry, for example, was hit hard and quickly garnered a fat US$5 billion (HK$38.9 billion) deal for a rescue package, further greased with an extra US$10 billion in loan guarantees.

Then came steel, an industry even more troubled than America's airlines. Slightly less obviously, steel producers started to argue national security was at risk. 'Without steel, we cannot guarantee our national security,' Senator Jay Rockefeller thundered in Congress. He represents West Virginia, a poor state where steel votes are vital. 'Without steel we cannot build from our tragedy.'

A fortnight ago the steel regions got their relief, a hotly controversial decision by the allegedly free-trade Bush administration to slap tariffs on imports, much of it from Asia.

Several surveys suggest any sense of rational threat seemed to end there. The left-leaning Mother Jones magazine, for example, has had a field day cataloguing the excesses.

Take, for example, the pork for beef scam. The magazine found fine print in economic stimulus proposals seeking a subsidy of US$10 million to support the North America Bison Co-operative. A North Dakota congressman is pushing the claim, stating that meat sales are slumping because fear of terrorism has driven customers from the top-end eateries that serve bison burgers and steaks.

Then there are the manufacturers of traffic signs suggesting more government spending on, no surprise, traffic signs. Clear signage, of course, will be vital if people are to be able to flee their cities safely.

It is clearly a golden age for the lobbyist. Even as campaign financing rules change, no one is expecting the wider money-go-round to stop. Special interests in certain areas ultimately mean votes, political support and donations, one way or another.

'It is ultimately about getting people's voices heard and their interests represented,' said a Washington lawyer. 'It is an essential part of our democracy. Yes, money is involved in the wider game but it is relatively open and it is not going to stop.'

Walk the halls of Congress on any given day and the lobbyists are everywhere, their sharp grey suits and tassled shoes noticeable.

Congressmen are literally approached in the hallways and lobbies. The Centre for Responsive Politics estimates more than a US$1 billion a year sloshes through Washington securing political influence, whether it is spent by trade unions, interest groups or private sector lobby firms.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation claims that the public ultimately has very little say in the gold rush. A study of the latest federal budget has unearthed 7,803 examples of congressional pork-barrelling.

Senior Heritage fellow Ronald Utt has unearthed funds ear-marked for a tattoo-removal programme in a California county and a bike trail in North Dakota. And cash for a clampdown on 'goth culture' in Kansas.

'This exercise is really all about electoral insecurity and the desire to buy friendship and public affection with the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers,' he warns. A certain four letters say it just as well.