Editorial: Pork by any other name

Editorial: Pork by any other name

Pigs at farm. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Pigs at farm. (Dreamstime/TNS)

TNS

Whether you call them member items, community projects or earmarks, it’s all fundamentally the same thing: pork-barrel spending. And it’s coming back to Congress in a big way.

Before you dig out your old tea party hat and buttons from storage and look for a town meeting to disrupt, it’s worth taking a few moments to consider exactly what Congress is proposing here — a new and supposedly improved process for allowing members to tack spending items onto legislation.

If there’s one thing New Yorkers know, it’s pork — the good and bad kinds. Done right, it can be beneficial for worthy projects and needy groups. Done wrong, it can be grossly corrupt, if not downright illegal.

A decade or so ago, member items were something of a dirty New York state secret. The Legislature published a list, sure, but good luck trying to figure out who sponsored a grant or what it was for. Lawmakers went to great lengths to make that hard to scrutinize, providing the lists only on paper or in computer images that couldn’t be digitally searched. It took a lawsuit by the Times Union to pry the records loose.

And there was plenty of self-dealing and criminal activity behind that curtain. One of the most notorious culprits was Sen. Pedro Espada, a Bronx Democrat who spent five years in prison for siphoning millions off a health program for the poor that he had funded with federal and state money. He was one of the worst, but hardly the only one.

To supposedly clean up the process, New York shifted the legislative pork program to the Dormitory Authority, which is a little more transparent but could be better. Its latest report lists the amounts, recipients and uses of more than $1.2 billion in grants, but leaves out a critical element — which legislator sponsored each grant. The state, though, assures the public that projects are screened for conflicts of interest and other shenanigans.

Congress, run by Democrats in both houses now, also assures the American public that the new earmark process, brought back after a decade, will be on the up-and-up. The rules are different this time around: Members must make their submissions public and certify they don't have a financial interest in them. The money can go only to government and nonprofit projects. Recipients will be audited.

The argument for restoring earmarks is credible enough — representatives know better than bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., what their districts need. And certainly, some of the initial proposals sound positive — $4.8 million for a floating solar array on Cohoes’ reservoir, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam; $27 million for a drinking water project at Fort Drum, sponsored by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville; and $430,000 for a gun violence prevention project in Ulster County, requested by U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck.

Will someone try to slip through a bridge to nowhere? Will bags of money traced back to this program be found in some politician’s freezer? Will it turn out that some non-profit used an earmark to hire some congressman’s relative? We don’t have the crystal ball to say yes, nor the naiveté to say no. The best we can say so far is that it sounds promising. Now, the trick is for 535 politicians not to break the promise.