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Mad tea party

From a teapot museum to the World Toilet Summit, a new report shows that pork-barrel politics is worse than ever

Mad tea party

The rural region of Yixing, China, is considered the birthplace of the teapot, according to teapot expert Richard Notkin. Nearly 1,000 years later, the rural region of Sparta, N.C., is set to become the birthplace of a multimillion-dollar, federally funded teapot museum. Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a nonpartisan government watchdog group, reported this month that the yet-to-be-opened Sparta Teapot Museum will receive a half million dollars in federal funding for a $10 million building that will house a 7,000-piece teapot collection.

CAGW listed the museum's funding in its annual "Pig Book," a compilation of federal funding projects that the group classifies as "pork" or "earmark" spending. Earmark projects are typically tacked onto large appropriation bills and usually pass with no debate or budget review. The projects are often added onto bills in conference sessions after legislation has already passed, giving congressmen an easy way to get federal bucks for projects back home. CAGW identified $29 billion in pork-barrel spending for the fiscal year 2006.

With an $8 trillion national debt, pork-barrel spending is an extravagant practice indulged in by Republicans and Democrats alike, but a handful of Republican members are calling for reform. At least one congressman, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), thinks his party's majority status may depend on it: "If we [Republicans] don't fix this, the chickens may come home to roost in this year's elections."

CAGW's 2006 Pig Book identifies nearly 10,000 projects in 11 appropriation bills that constitute the discretionary portion of the federal budget. Some of the projects are practical: road improvements, new traffic lights, police training. Others are outlandish: $13.5 million for the International Fund for Ireland, which includes funding for the World Toilet Summit; $1 million for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative in Michigan; $234,000 for the Wild Turkey Federation in South Carolina, a project aimed at increasing the number of wild turkeys and wild turkey hunters in the state.

Patrick Woodie, executive director of the Sparta Teapot Museum, says that there's more depth to some of the projects than the names suggest. The museum received an "oinker award" from CAGW for being particularly wasteful, but Mr. Woodie says the project is expected to bring much-needed tourism to an economically depressed region in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"A teapot museum may sound frivolous on the surface, but it's actually a major art and economic development project," he says. The museum will showcase thousands of teapots donated by a California couple from their personal collection, worth an estimated $5 million, and the museum expects to draw 60,000 visitors a year.

In a long storage room in the back of the Blue Ridge Business Development Center near downtown Sparta, Mr. Woodie walks through a dozen rows of metal modular shelves stacked high with bubble wrap and thousands of teapots. The collection includes rare pieces from Europe, antique sets from Britain, ceramic teapots, glass teapots, wooden teapots, and rows of novelty teapots, including one shaped like an oil rig with a lid emblazoned with George W. Bush's face.

Mr. Woodie says the museum has raised more than $1 million in private funds and has received $400,000 from the state, but he thinks the project also merits federal funding because it will bring employment and growth to the needy area.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who helped secure the $500,000 in federal funds, has been a staunch advocate for spending restraint and fiscal accountability during her first year in office, but said when Congress decided to spend money on economic development, she decided to "fight for economic development projects in Western North Carolina."

CAGW president Tom Schatz says that logic "is exactly what's wrong with the whole process." Instead of fighting for "behind the scenes" earmark funds, Mr. Schatz says members of Congress should be competing for federal grants, a process that requires approval and oversight. Congress awards some $500 million in federal grants for local projects each year.

Mr. Schatz also supports earmark-reform legislation that would take the secrecy out of the pork-barrel process. Rep. Flake has joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in co-sponsoring the Obligation of Funds Transparency Act, a bill that would require greater transparency and accountability for congressmen seeking earmark funds (See "Money-go-round" Feb. 11, 2006).

Mr. Flake says Republicans should be advocating for smaller government by leading the way on earmark reform, but admits his party has a long way to go. This year a Republican senator topped CAGW's list for pork-barrel spending per capita: Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska secured $325 million in earmarks for his state, including $1.3 million for "berry research." A spokeswoman for Mr. Stevens said the senator had no comment on the report.

Legislators who push through pork-barrel projects typically say they're merely advocating for their constituents. But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an outspoken opponent of pork-barrel spending, says federal lawmakers should be asking, "Who are my constituents?" To members of Congress, Mr. Coburn says: "Your constituents are the taxpayers of the United States of America and the future generation. . . . If you're backing projects that benefit you politically back home, you're not being a good steward of public money."

Mr. Coburn recently blasted a $700 million earmark to tear down a newly rebuilt railroad line in Mississippi. Dozens of blue-collar workers for CSX Transportation worked feverishly for nearly five months to repair six major bridges and 40 miles of train track on CSX's Gulf Coast Line, a major east-west railroad decimated by Hurricane Katrina. CSX and its insurers spent $300 million to repair the damage, and announced the line's reopening in mid-January. But earlier this month, the Senate appropriations committee approved $700 million to tear down and relocate the newly rebuilt line.

The head-scratching project is attached to a $107 billion spending measure to fund the war in Iraq and additional hurricane relief. Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who had pushed for the relocation project long before the hurricane, now calls the venture an important part of the state's recovery, citing safety concerns and traffic congestion. "If you're going to recover right, you've got to rebuild right," said Lott spokesman Lee Youngblood.

Sen. Coburn calls the railroad funding "extraneous pork" and says it's "ludicrous" for the Senate to foot the bill. "If the state wants to pay for it that's fine," he told WORLD, "but it's not the obligation of the federal government to move a private railroad." Though the proposal didn't come out in time to make the Pig Book, CAGW's Mr. Schatz says it would qualify: "For $700 million, the Congress could certainly do a lot more to help people that are still without homes."

Wasting taxpayer dollars isn't the only thing that concerns Mr. Schatz about pork-barrel spending. "It also has the potential to lead to corruption," he says, pointing to former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). Mr. Cunningham recently began serving an eight-year sentence in a federal prison after admitting to tax evasion, mail fraud, and accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called the Senate appropriations committee "an earmark favor factory."

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors opened an investigation into the personal financial disclosures of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who faces questions about whether he provided earmarks benefiting companies and individuals who helped make him a millionaire, according to The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Mollohan, who holds the ranking post on the House ethics committee, has denied any wrongdoing.

Sen. Coburn, whose home state ranked 48th in CAGW's report, emphasizes that pork-barrel spending is a problem in both parties and warns, "We have to fix this now, or we'll have to fix it when it becomes a catastrophe." Rep. Flake says a small catastrophe could greet Republicans in the midterm elections if they don't curb spending: "If Americans want big government, they'll eventually go back to the original article-the Democrats."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.