The Real Price of Pork Barrel Spending

So much has gone wrong in the days since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The long wait until help came, the looting, the miscommunications, etc. If you have a column called "Give Me a Break," it's hard to know where to start. But for right now, there is one group to whom I can say Give Me a Break without hesitating: Congress.

This disaster -- including the breaking of the levees -- wasn't unexpected. Regional newspapers, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself warned that a strong hurricane could have cataclysmic consequences on New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

It's been reported that just before 9/11, FEMA warned that the three biggest threats to America were a terrorist attack on New York City -- a massive earthquake in San Francisco and flooding in New Orleans -- if a big hurricane hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers asked for $27 million to strengthen New Orleans' levees, so they might not break, but Congress gave it just a fraction of that. The wise politicians had other priorities they thought were more deserving of our tax dollars. Like what? Like pork.

What some consider waste others may consider worthy, but it's hard to imagine that anyone would consider some of the pet projects that Congress funds more worthy than keeping people safe.

"In past years, money has gone to various halls of fame. Rock and Roll and Baseball Hall of Fame and the International Paper Hall of Fame in Wisconsin," said Tom Shatz of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, got $50 million for an indoor rainforest in his state.

New Jersey received $18,000 for a smoking booth at its Teterboro airport, the nation's biggest private airport -- in other words, an airport for rich people.

When the next Katrina emergency relief bill hits Congress, watch out for the pork.

In the tsunami relief bill, Congress added $25 million for a fish hatchery in Montana. That's helping tsunami victims?

"It's a thinly veiled attempt to bribe constituents to vote for them," said Shatz.

All week we've heard reports bemoaning Congress' failure to give the Corps of Engineers the $27 million it requested.

But surprise, Thursday's edition of The Washington Post revealed that Congress has given the Corps far more than that. In fact, Louisiana got hundreds of millions more than any other state. Congress just didn't spend much of it on flood control.

When I confronted former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., reminding him of that fact, he said, "But we should have gotten more in terms of flood control and navigation, because we have more problems than any other state."

But everyone in Congress says their state is special. Alaska must be very special, because it gets so much pork. The town of Ketchikan has just one main road, but now it's getting more than $200 million of your tax dollars because Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, wants to replace a ferry with a bridge to the next island. And he doesn't want to build a simple bridge. He wants to build one higher than the Brooklyn Bridge and almost as long as the Golden Gate.

Even some Ketchikan residents can't believe it. One woman told us, "I think it's a colossal waste of taxpayers' money."

Another man said, "The short view is, I don't see a need for it. The long view is, I still don't see a need for it."

People are calling it the "Bridge to Nowhere," because it links to an island where there is an airport but not much else. The island has no roads and is home mostly to trees.

Is a $200 million bridge to an isolated island really a necessity that deserves our tax dollars?

Alaska's hardly alone in wanting to spend your money on frivolous pork. Alabama got $200,000 for a peanut festival.

Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., brought that money home to his constituents and they were happy to take it. "I think it's a waste of money," one man said. "But if they're going to waste money, I guess it's better to waste it here than anywhere else," he added.

Louisiana has wasted plenty of money, too. It spent $300,000 to house Breaux's papers in a college.

I asked him about the money he squandered on pork and handouts, like subsidies that went to the sugar industry and shipbuilders in his state.

He was irritated by my question. "I object to you using words like 'squandering pork.' These projects all have to meet a benefit/cost ratio study. What is pork in one part of the country is an essential project in another part," he said.

Please. Spending money on critical infrastructure -- like levees that could have withstood storm surges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and protected New Orleans -- is an essential project. Spending money on halls of fame, bridges to nowhere and industry subsidies is pork. The founders argued that we should have limited government. They were on to something. If the government didn't try to do so many things, it wouldn't do so many things badly. Our money should be spent to keep us safe.

Give Me a Break.