Pork barrel technology projects on the rise
By Declan McCullagh
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 30, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Buried deep in the initial version of a vital federal spending bill last year were some unlikely items slated for government money: a Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative, a Virtual Reality Spray Paint Simulator System and a community ski association in Telluride, Colo.
Not all the programs included in earlier drafts of the legislation, which was supposed to pay for Department of Defense operations and the war in Iraq, were included in the final version that President Bush signed Dec. 30. But such earmarks for favored recipients--known colloquially as pork--have become easier than ever for politicians to secure because of the rapid growth in homeland security and military spending, especially if they can find some plausible technological veneer.
Exact figures are difficult to obtain, mostly because spending bills tend to be intentionally obfuscated and specifics are usually absent from legislative text. Government watchdogs, however, say earmarks ostensibly related to technology are clearly on the rise.
A database compiled for CNET News.com by CAGW, a taxpayer watchdog group, also indicated a rise in technology pork projects from fiscal 2003 to 2005.
The Iowa Biotechnology Byproducts Consortium, an antiwaste research organization in the home state of Senate Committee on Appropriations member Tom Harkin, received $1.8 million last year. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania secured $200,000 for Beaver County to teach safe Internet use. And Sen. Thad Cochran arranged $334,000 in funding for "e-commerce research" in his home state of Mississippi.
Dick Armey, chairman, FreedomWorks
Pork is criticized by taxpayer advocacy groups for precisely the reason it's beloved by politicians: handing federal dollars to politically favored recipients. Rather than an executive branch agency offering grants after an open solicitation for proposals, legislators who have wrangled appointments to the Senate and House appropriations committees are able to earmark money for their home states. It also reduces competition by favoring incumbents over challengers.
"These grants are not competitively awarded because of the process by which they get added to appropriations bills," Schatz of CAGW said. "Because they're noncompetitive, they're likely taking money away from other technology projects that are going through some kind of review process."
The overall amount of pork spending has been swelling. In a January report, congressional researchers said they found nearly 16,000 such earmarks in the 13 appropriations bills for the 2005 fiscal year. That's nearly four times the number in 1994, before the Republicans gained control of Congress.
That rapid growth has led to such flaps as last year's $223 million so-called bridge to nowhere that was supposed to connect the village of Ketchikan, Alaska, with a nearby island of 50 people. That was a favored project of a pair of Alaska Republicans, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, who head key committees. (Even after a public outcry, Alaska still got the cash.)
One that didn't get the cash
Pine Technical College in rural Pine City, Minn., might normally seem an unusual recipient of a $1 million check from a defense spending bill for a Virtual Reality Spray Paint Simulator System. The vocational school grants no four-year degrees and has only four faculty members who teach computer sciences, one of whom possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology as a qualification.
But Pine Technical College has the good fortune to be located in the district of Rep. James Oberstar, the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota's history. As the senior Democrat on the committee overseeing transportation-related legislation--a favorite source of pork spending--Oberstar has the influence and tenure to demand political favors.
competitive, they're likely taking money away from other technology projects that are going through some kind of review process."
Tom Schatz, president, Citizens Against Government Waste
For the last few years, Oberstar has worked to secure millions of dollars for the college's simulator, which involves a computer-connected gun similar to those of video games. The gun can be used to "spray" paint on a screen in a manner akin to Adobe Photoshop's airbrush tool. The college's Web site says some local businesses want to use the simulator for training painters, but it does not identify any possible military applications for the project.
John Heckman, director of the college's Johnson Center for Virtual Reality--named after the late Janet Johnson, a secretary turned state senator who was head of a budget subcommittee--said the center's name appeared in the House of Representatives version of the bill but not in the final one. The final version put it out for a public bid, and Heckman's center didn't win. "So we have not yet received any earmark funding. Not for lack of trying," he said.
Heckman argues, though, that Pine Technical College's attempts to wrest earmarked money from Congress should not be viewed as pork. "A project that provides multiple public payback in return for investment of public money is not pork," he said.
"Virtual-reality spray paint training is not a boondoggle but rather an effective, nonpolluting way to quickly learn an essential set of production skills at far lower cost than previously," Heckman said. "It is a wise investment of public resources."