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Pennsylvania senator abuses the earmark process

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Arlen Specter’s Tangled Web of Pork

Pennsylvania senator abuses the earmark process

Hey, boys and girls. It’s that time of year again when Uncle Sam dons the red-suit-and-beard and hangs pork ornaments on the “Emergency Spending” tree. If you’re not quite familiar with this annual congressional festival, let me share with you just one example from last year’s taxpayer-funded earmark orgy.

It all started when the president requested “emergency funding” to fight the War on Terror. Now, you may be thinking to yourself that this war has been going on for five years now and, therefore, the cost of fighting it should already be known and funded in the regular defense budget. You silly goose.

In Washington, if you don’t declare an “emergency” of some sort each year, you don’t have an additional opportunity to lard up an additional spending bill with earmarks and pork. Geez. You really don’t know how things work in Washington, do you? Here, let me help you understand this better.

Last year, the president asked Congress for billions in “emergency” funding for the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) used this “emergency” spending request as an opportunity to insert a provision into the “emergency” bill, which directed that a $40 million grant to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority “be used solely for the purpose of construction, by and for a Philadelphia-based company.”

Stick with me here; the story is about to take some wild turns.

Here’s how Specter explained the earmark to his colleagues on the Senate floor last April: “This money is being allocated to develop the port facilities in Philadelphia to accommodate a very new kind of ship, which will compete with air travel and which has very substantial military as well as commercial purposes.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, maybe. Until pork-buster Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) took to the floor and blew the whistle.

McCain informed the Senate that he had been in a meeting with the secretary of the Navy, along with Specter, to discuss this matter. He noted that he was very proud of the Navy chief “because unequivocally the secretary of the Navy said: No, we do not want this money, we do not have the technology, we do not have the design for this, this is not one of our requirements, and we do not want to spend $40 million in this fashion.”

McCain added, “It was as strong a statement as I have ever heard from the secretary of the Navy. This is basically a $40 million giveaway of the taxpayers’ dollars to a private corporation that has nothing to do with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has nothing to do with it.”

Yowza. But like Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman,” McCain was just getting warmed up.

“There is no design today for a high-speed military sealift,” McCain noted.

“I wish there were. It is affordable. But the fact is that there is not. The fact is the Navy unequivocally said they do not want taxpayers’ dollars, defense dollars, spent on this port in the city of Philadelphia.” McCain again reiterated, “This has nothing to do with Afghanistan, it has nothing to do with the tsunami, it has nothing to do with Iraq, and it has nothing to do with the Navy’s requirements for a high-speed military sealift capability.”

Specter then rose to the floor to defend his pet earmark. But McCain remained unconvinced, and brought up yet another aspect of the project: That the $40 million contract was being restricted to a Philadelphia-based entity, a requirement McCain found “astonishing.”

“In other words,” the Arizona senator pointed out, “a company in Seattle or a company in Charleston or a company in Oklahoma, they couldn’t compete for this [contract]. It has to be a Philadelphia-based company. What is it about Philadelphia-based companies that warrants them receiving a $40 million contract without competition from anybody else?”

McCain added, “We should not be designating certain cities as a base for any company to compete for any contract of any kind. . . . In these times of burgeoning fiscal deficits, for us to designate money to be spent by a local-based company is just the wrong way to designate, and I think most Americans would agree.”

Yep. Most Americans would. But not most of McCain’s colleagues.

Fellow pork-buster, Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) offered an amendment to this “emergency” spending bill that would have stripped out this $40 million Philly-only earmark. The amendment was resoundingly rejected on a voice vote.

But that’s still not the end of this sordid story.

Not only was this $40 million earmark restricted to a Philadelphia-based company, but it turns out that there was only one Philadelphia company that would have qualified for the contract to build a port for a ship that doesn’t exist and which the Navy had no interest in. That Philadelphia company is FastShip Inc., and BusinessWeek reports that FastShip executives “doled out $8,500 to help reelect Republican Senator Arlen Specter” in 2004.

But it gets better . . . or worse, depending on how you look at it. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Specter also “received $24,500 from lobbyists working for Blank Rome LLP. So what’s that have to do with anything? Well, “One of Blank Rome’s largest clients is FastShip Inc.”

Ah, that tangled web of pork. But what a sweet deal, huh? It took only $33,000 in campaign contributions in return for $40 million? I’d take that deal any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And Washington politicians wonder why taxpayers are a) so damned cynical, and b) so damned mad?

Written By

Mr. Muth is president of Citizen Outreach, a non-profit public policy advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Citizen Outreach.

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