Congress Tricks and Treats Taxpayers, Watchdog Group Says

By Pete Winn | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Halloween 2007 saw both tricks and treats being played on taxpayers, according to a Washington, D.C., tax watchdog group.

At the top of Citizens Against Government Waste's (CAGW) "tricks" list is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who earmarked $2 million in taxpayer funds to go to an overall $30 billion building project close to his heart - the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service, the Rangel Conference Center, and the Charles Rangel Library at the City College of New York.

David Williams, CAGW vice president of policy, said Rangel's move was "unbelievable."

"Usually, except if you're Robert Byrd, you have to wait until you die before something is named after you, but Charlie Rangel, in absolute hubris, was able to get this money to go to the Rangel Center," he said.

Byrd, one of the longest serving members in Congress and the senior senator from West Virginia, was even more egregious than Rangel, in that he has "half of West Virginia named after him," Williams said, tongue-in-cheek.

Rangel, by the way, said when completed, the Rangel Center will house undergraduate and graduate degree programs "to prepare members of underrepresented populations" for careers in government.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a staunch critic of congressional earmarks - or what used to be referred to as "pork-barrel spending"- said the money that Rangel has secured for a monument to himself is just another example of why many taxpayers distrust those on Capitol Hill.

"The point isn't to vilify individual members of Congress, but it is to point out that we have a root cause of overspending and horrible conflicts of interest in Congress - it all goes back to these earmarks," DeMint told Cybercast News Service.

"It's not our business to decide where bike paths should go, or where research should be done at our local colleges, or where sewer plants should go, or which museums should be funded. We need to be working on the business of our country and our future."

Other taxpayer boondoggles involving earmarks include a $3,500 poker table for the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control facility in Atlanta, a $1,300 oil painting for the lobby of the FAA facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, and $1,785 for a catered party in Philadelphia.

"The sad thing is that there is a leak in the roof of the tower in Atlanta that needs to be fixed before they get the poker table," Williams quipped. 'Let's just hope that they don't put the table underneath the leaky roof."

No list would be complete without mentioning S.1, the lobbying reform bill that was passed earlier this year. Several of its provisions were designed to bring transparency to earmarks but wound up having the opposite effect, Williams said.

"People were hoodwinked into thinking this brought real earmark reform to Washington, D.C.," he added. "There are so many loopholes in S. 1 that there isn't going to be real transparency when it comes to the earmarking process. S1 was really the biggest trick of all on taxpayers."

Some treats for taxpayers

Still there were some taxpayer "treats" in 2007, for which the watchdog group had praise.

President Bush won kudos for wielding the veto pen to block Congress' attempt to force wasteful spending on the country by expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years.

"That took a lot of guts," Williams said. "The president has taken a lot of heat over the years for proposing budgets that overspend. Let's be honest, he's deserved it. But he put his foot down with SCHIP.

"He said we are not going to expand a program that is going to include 'children' that are 24 years old and 'poor' households that make $80,000 a year in income. He really took a lot of political and personal risk by vetoing SCHIP, and it was the right move," Williams added.

Taxpayers also got good news when Alaska's now-infamous Bridge to Nowhere proposal was shelved, and the $36 million proposal to connect Ketchikan with Gravina Island off the coast of Alaska was replaced with far less costly plans to improve local ferry service.

"We have never seen an earmark like this get so much publicity that it was yanked from the appropriations bill," he said.

Two powerful members of Congress from Alaska - Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young - actually "felt the heat and saw the light."

"For them to feel the pressure to yank this out of the appropriations bill, and finally for the governor to put a stake right through the heart of this project, shows that grassroots activism does work," Williams said. "When people voice their opinions and get mad enough, they can make a difference."

Even DeMint wins kudos for his amendment to prohibit the practice of members of Congress pressuring government agency officials with phone calls and letters to fund pet projects that were not included as part of legislation passed by the Congress and signed by the president.

The South Carolina Republican said he is grateful for the compliment, even though some of his colleagues have "lost their way" when it comes to earmarking money for projects.

"Earmarks are used to basically incentivize members of Congress to vote for bills that are bad policy or are way over budget," DeMint said.

"Every appropriation bill has sprinkled in it little pet projects - earmarks - for almost every congressman and senator. Some members of Congress have actually gone to jail for obtaining earmarks for groups or entities that gave money back personally to the congressmen," he added.

Interestingly, one practice which is legal but questionable, DeMint said, is for members of Congress to designate money to groups which, in turn, give money to the congressional campaigns.

"It goes on all the time," he added. "You can't say that all members who do this are crooks, because a lot of times we don't even know exactly who's giving us money and who's not. But it looks bad, even if it's not illegal."

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