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Pork on Parade

With the printing of the $520 billion "Frankenstein" spending bill, the full extent of pork-barrel projects members of Congress took home is there for all to see.

"Pork" is spending that bypasses the usual vetting process. Powerful members - often the committee chairman or ranking minority member - tack pet projects onto larger spending bills without committee votes. Such projects may seem legitimate to the group or community that benefits, but often would not pass muster in committee or during floor consideration when weighed against other needs.

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In some cases, the projects appear in neither the House nor the Senate version of a bill, but are tucked in during conference negotiations between the two houses.

An increasingly popular practice is earmarking. That's when money is given to a federal, state, or local agency, but the agency is told exactly how and where to spend it. That allows Congress to micromanage with great inefficiency, often bypassing the local officials who should be making the decisions while at the same time grandstanding about waste.

Many projects are worthy and would get funding if put through the regular process. The question, year after year, is why that doesn't happen - whichever party is in charge.

The amounts involved range from less than $1 million to hundreds of millions, but they add up to billions. Some examples of nickel-and-dime items furnished by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of Congress's most admirably persistent pork-busters, include $250,000 to an Illinois firm to research caffeinated chewing gum, $750,000 for grasshopper research in Alaska, and $1 million for peanut-quality research in Georgia.

Among the huge sums Congress earmarked without vetting are $411 million to lease, purchase, remodel, and build the Oklahoma City Airport Trust facility; $100 million to build a Capitol visitors' center in Washington; and $166 million in agricultural-project earmarks around the country.

Perhaps the most costly spending per person is $20 million to build a road to a dock in King Cove, Alaska, population 700, plus another $37.5 million for health and safety projects there. The state's congressional delegation pressed for a gravel road through a wildlife refuge to allow residents access to medical facilities at Cove Bay, about 30 miles away. The administration and environmentalists fought to block it. The air and sea improvements are meant to provide an alternative - at about $82,000 per resident.

While the line-item veto was nixed by the Supreme Court, Congress can still take several steps to put an end to the feeding frenzy. It can:

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* Require that all spending be authorized by the full committees of jurisdiction and allocated by the full appropriations committees.

* Prohibit the insertion of spending items in conference committee that did not appear in either the House or Senate version of the bill.

* Require supermajorities of 60 percent or two-thirds to waive any of the above rules.

In addition, state and local officials must insist that Congress swear off earmarking. Congress ties their hands when substituting its judgment for theirs. It's time they used their clout to demand accountability from their representatives in Washington.

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