President Barack Obama sounded so mournful Wednesday about having to sign a $410 billion bill to fund the federal government that, for a second, I thought he'd refuse.
He was not sad about the amount of money involved. These days, $410 billion is small potatoes. Obama's stimulus package was $787 billion. His budget for next year projects a $1.75 trillion deficit.
So $410 billion is probably in the range of what Bernie Madoff still has hidden away in his mattress.
No, it was not the amount that made the president so gloomy. It was the $7.7 billion for 8,570 pet projects that are contained in the bill and known as earmarks.
During his campaign, Obama had promised to end most earmarks, and now he is spending billions on them. This has ticked him off. Sort of.
"Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that's why I've opposed their outright elimination," Obama said Wednesday.
So, good earmarks: Yay!
"But the fact is that, on occasion, earmarks have been used as a vehicle for waste and fraud and abuse," Obama also said.
So, bad earmarks: Boo!
How do we tell the difference? The Internet. In the future, earmarks will have to be posted on the Internet.
"Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members' websites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merits for themselves," Obama said.
Earmarks could be Twittered, but I doubt that members of Congress could keep their tweets to 140 characters.
There is no exact definition of what an earmark is. Or even what pork is.
Obama has no objection to pork. Just as long as it serves the public good.
Which is why in Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill there was plenty of money for a magnetic levitation train between Disneyland and Las Vegas. This would do a lot of people who like to gamble while wearing mouse ears a lot of good.
Which is the trouble with pork and even earmarks. Everybody who wants the dough claims it does somebody some good.
Sparta, N.C., got $500,000 in federal tax dollars for a teapot museum a couple of years ago. Some thought that was an evil earmark, but North Carolina politicians said it was "local revitalization."
Boston's infamous Big Dig, the costliest highway project in American history, was supposed to cost a mere $2.8 billion but, according to The Boston Globe, will end up costing $22 billion and won't be paid off until 2038. It was designed to replace an elevated highway so the area would be less ugly. In other words, it was not really pork but "local revitalization." (As Barney Frank once asked, "Rather than lower the expressway, wouldn't it be cheaper to raise the city?")
But don't worry. Things are changing.
"The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past," Obama said Wednesday. "This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand."
In the old days, people learned about ridiculous and wasteful pork barrel spending by reading about it in the newspapers. In the future, people will learn about ridiculous and wasteful pork barrel spending by reading about it on the Internet. Ain't progress grand?