Lieberman's Pork Defense

Facing a Democratic electorate in Connecticut hostile to his pro-war position on Iraq, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is stressing his efficiency in bringing home pork for his constituents the past 18 years. That resulted in an exchange with peace candidate Ned Lamont in their July 7 Democratic primary debate that revealed a lot about how politics and government work in Washington today.

Polls showed Lamont creeping up in the Aug. 8 primary when Lieberman and his fellow Connecticut Democrat, Sen. Christopher Dodd, issued a press release June 28 bragging about funding $2.5 billion in future transportation projects in the state. At the debate nine days later, Lamont raised the climate of corruption in Washington. “There are earmarks that are good,” countered Lieberman, challenging Lamont whether he would oppose “good” Connecticut earmarks for intermodal transportation service and ferry service. Lamont replied: “I think we should outlaw these earmarks. I think they corrupt the political process.”

As a shrewd and experienced candidate, Lieberman reflects many fellow professional politicians who realize that runaway earmarking in Congress has become public and unpopular. He now opposes the practice in general while still relying on the process to secure national taxpayer funding for government projects in his own state.

In the only debate with Lamont that Lieberman agreed to, the senator looked nearly as dismissive as Walter Mondale did when he debated Republican Norm Coleman in the 2002 Minnesota Senate race. Lieberman could not mask his contempt for this upstart, whose previous public service had been as a Greenwich selectman nearly two decades ago, calling him “Ned” while Lamont referred to “Sen. Lieberman.”

Lieberman’s exasperation peaked when Lamont called the 6,241 earmarks in last year’s transportation program “wrong” and suggested the senator was “part of the problem.” While praising “good” earmarks for Connecticut, Lieberman added: “Of course, we were all against the bridge to nowhere.” In fact, Lieberman last Oct. 20 voted against Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment to defund the infamous Alaska bridge.

On that same day, Lieberman also voted to oppose Coburn’s proposals to defund a parking garage in Nebraska, a sculpture park in the state of Washington and an animal shelter in Rhode Island. Citizens Against Government Waste, which named Lieberman as “Porker of the Month” in August 2004, puts him in their “unfriendly” category with a 21 % lifetime rating. The conservative Club for Growth’s evaluation of 2005 votes rated him 3 %. The American Conservative Union gave Lieberman a zero for 2004, raising him to 8 % in 2005.

Lieberman’s marginal conservative improvement last year reflected his Sept. 21 vote, against the Democratic leadership, for an amendment requiring greater disclosure of earmarks. That signaled a new alertness to the problem, and it became intensified when the “bridge to nowhere” became a national scandal. This year, Lieberman voted three times with Coburn on Katrina-related earmarks: against reconstructing a railroad, promoting seafood consumption and subsidizing Northrop Grumman shipbuilding.

But when it comes to bringing home the bacon for his home state, Lieberman is trying to get in a class with Bob Byrd in West Virginia and Ted Stevens in Alaska. He and his Senate colleague Dodd collaborate on the pork beat, jointly creating Fiscal Year 2006 earmarks that total $101.7 million.

This involves some of the typically absurd symptoms of the earmark epidemic where all the nation’s taxpayers have to pay for local projects, such as $100,000 for a new YMCA in Ellington and $250,000 to renovate the Palace Theatre in Stamford. But Lieberman-Dodd earmarks more typically are heavy-construction expenditures — headed by $12 million for the Hartford-New Britain Busway, $4 million for the Bridgeport Intermodal Transport Center and $2.75 million each for high speed ferries in Stamford and Bridgeport.

The choice for Connecticut Democrats is no less clear on government spending than it is about intervention in Iraq. The issue was put more succinctly than is usual for politicians near the end of the July 7 debate. Asserting that spending should be authorized through the regular congressional process, Lamont confronted Lieberman: “You support the earmarks, you work with the lobbyists, and that’s what needs to be changed.” Lieberman replied: “The earmarks are great for Connecticut.”