Does 'Pork-Less' Stimulus Bear Porcine Whiff?

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The debate over the economic stimulus package backed by President Obama has focused on the bill's huge tax cuts and spending meant to pump new life into the economy.

But the measure also has some smaller provisions that have some Republicans angry — like money set aside for the National Endowment for the Arts and to plant grass on the National Mall.

Democrats say the bill is clean: No special projects. No earmarks. No pork-barrel spending. But if you listen to Republicans, you might ask: What's in a name? That which we call pork, by any other name would smell as porcine.

Republicans See Pork

"It's chock-full of it," says Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, perhaps the most pork-conscious member of the Republican Party. "There aren't congressional earmarks, and that's a good thing. But when you get down to the city level, it's chock-full of pork."

No earmarks in the bill means no members of Congress managed to get a specific amount of money doled out to special projects in their districts. That is what is often called pork in big congressional spending bills.

But even without earmarks, Flake says the bill is made of bacon — and not because of the Obama administration, he adds.

"It's gone through the congressional Democrats," he says. "It's basically a grab bag for every program that they've wanted to see funded for years."

The bill pushes tens of billions of dollars into education, and not just for building and renovation projects, but for everything from Head Start to college loans and Pell Grants. Some Republicans ask: How does that stimulate the economy?

"For example, $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts," Flake says. "There's no better example than that. How that stimulates the economy, I don't know."

And then there is the grass. The bill includes $200 million to reseed the National Mall in Washington.

Democrats See Jobs

So, according to Republicans, the bill is full of pork. Not so, says Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"There's not pork in this bill," he says. "There's not a single earmark in this bill."

Every cent of government spending goes through Obey's office.

"We are trying to find every possible constructive way to put people back to work," he says. "And if one of those ways is to repair the Mall, I see no harm in doing that, if it accomplishes a good public purpose."

Obey and other Democrats also say this bill will have some of the toughest oversight of any government spending in years — and not just by Congress. After it passes, the public will be able to track every penny of it on a Web site, recovery.gov.

Still, there are some odd bits in the legislation. For example, it specifically bars local governments from using the infrastructure money to build zoos, casinos, swimming pools and golf courses.

Arizona's Flake asks: If there's no pork in the bill, why ban these things?

Obey's answer: "We don't want to be cheap-shotted to death by people who will pick out something that sounds like a funny title and [use] it to ridicule the entire package."

Pork Vs. No Pork

Even so, Flake will introduce an amendment on the House floor Wednesday that would ban spending stimulus money on duck ponds, ice rinks, ski hills and dog parks.

So the question remains: Is there pork in this bill?

"Pork is a very subjective definition," says Robert Bixby of the nonpartisan budget watchdog The Concord Coalition. "One man's idea of pork is another man's vital federal program."

And that's the rub. When you have two parties with strong ideological differences — especially when it comes to spending taxpayer money — a big ham on the dining room table can look like two different things. To some, it's pork. To others, it's a nourishing meal.

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