This Little Piggy Went to Congress
The U.S. government is frequently (and often justifiably) criticized for its excessive spending of taxpayer dollars. Yet funding for projects that some consider frivolous, including some seafood-related research, is precious to others. So labeling all congressional earmarks as "pork," as one citizens' group does each year, misses the big picture. Conservatives and liberals agree on nearly nothing these days, but both sides must concede that nearly nothing worth having comes for free.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayers' watchdog group, last week released its 18th annual summary of congressional extravagances: A total of 11,610 special-interest "pork" projects will cost $17.2 billion in fiscal year 2008, a 30 percent increase from 2007. The "Pig Book," as it is known, is a must-read for many lawmakers who decry unnecessary federal expenditures, like presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who helped defeat a $15 million seafood-marketing program in 2006.
"Charlie the Tuna and the Chicken of the Sea mermaid are doing their jobs just fine without any help from the federal government," McCain said at the time.
Projects with smaller price tags stand a much better chance of getting financed, as the Pig Book describes in detail. But this year it trashes some commendable seafood-related ventures (scroll to the bottom for a full list). Namely, the $188,000 requested by Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, for the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. The institute conducts vital research for one of the United States' most treasured fisheries -- it just so happens to operate an underwater "Lobster Cam."
"If we're going to fund a lobster cam at a time when we're at war, we're not making good decisions," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., at a press conference, flanked by a man in a pink pig suit and two actual pigs.
It's terribly shortsighted to disparage a project that benefits one of Maine's most important industries with a flip comment and no apparent attempt to see where the money is actually going. Bob Bayer, the Lobster Institute's executive director, told me yesterday that not a single penny requested this year would fund the camera.
"That's [expletive]. And the [$188,000] is one of the smallest items in the book - it's a piss hole in the snow," Bayer says, adding that the money is actually funding a multi-agency lobster health coalition. "Without that money, it's not going to happen. Taxpayers will get their money back on this one, many times over."
Plenty of fat could be trimmed from our swollen federal budget, no doubt. But some "pork-barrel" projects are crucial for the wellbeing of marine resources and those whose livelihoods depend on them. If developing responsible aquaculture, revitalizing marine habitat and ensuring the longevity of Maine's lobster fishery are "pork," then pass the barbeque sauce.
Other seafood-related projects listed in the Pig Book: -- $329,676 requested by Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) for oyster post-harvest treatment; -- $235,000 by Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) for developing aquaculture in West Alabama; -- $770,472 by Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Thomas Carper (D-Del.) for oyster revitalization in Delaware Bay, which has been decimated by overfishing and shellfish disease; -- Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) made the list several times, including requests for $7.5 million for the Center for Marine Aquaculture to develop warmwater aquaculture and nearly $3.1 million for sustainable shrimp-farming research; -- $521,325 by Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) for aquaculture product and marketing development; and -- $818,232 by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, for developing alternative salmon products.