Congress Votes to Line Special Interest Pockets, Threaten Local Rule

Washington, D.C.Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Celebrating America’s Heritage Act” (H.R. 1483) which would send over $135 million of federal pork to special interest groups in select members’ districts.  The bill would create six new national heritage areas, including the controversial Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG) heritage area, and increase federal funding for nine existing heritage areas by 50 percent. 

The bill passed by a vote of 291-122, along mostly party lines. 

Although the bill passed, the measure faced more opposition than any heritage area bill in 13 years, a sign that the momentum is now against such boondoggles, says the National Center for Public Policy Research.

“It is encouraging to see a growing number of congressmen reject this brand of pork barrel self-dealing,” said Peyton Knight, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for The National Center for Public Policy Research.  “However, far too many in Congress would still rather load the coffers of pet special interest groups at the expense of fiscal sanity, local rule and the rights of property owners.”

National heritage areas are creations of Congress in which special interest groups, whose work at times has been funded through secret congressional earmarks, team up with the National Park Service to influence decisions over local land use previously made exclusively by elected local governments and private landowners. 

“The House was asked to choose between the rights of constituents and the demands of lobbyists, and 291 members chose the lobbyists,” said David Ridenour, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy Research.  “Celebrating America’s Heritage Act is a bill by lobbyists, for the benefit of lobbyists, with the taxpayer picking up the tab.”

Donald Pongrace, a lobbyist with Akin Gump, wrote the legislative language for JTHG and serves on the board of the JTHG Partnership, according to the group’s website.  JTHG is one of the special interest groups that would receive $1 million per year under the initiative. Mr. Pongrace’s wife, Olwen Pongrace, works at the JTHG Partnership as vice president.

Earlier, the JTHG Partnership received a one million-dollar earmark through the 2005 transportation bill.  At the time, the group was not incorporated.

“A $1 million earmark buried among 6,372 others to an unincorporated group ought to raise a huge red flag,” said David Ridenour. “This leaves open the possibility that taxpayer funds were used to lobby for more taxpayer funds.”

H.R. 1483 passed despite the objections of Representatives Roscoe Bartlett (MD), Virgil Goode (VA), Robert Goodlatte (VA), Thelma Drake (VA), J. Randy Forbes (VA) and Joe Pitts (PA), who represent three of the four states that would be affected by The Journey Through Hallowed Ground heritage area designation.  The heritage area would cut through Representative Bartlett’s and Representative Goode’s districts, posing a direct threat to the rights of their constituents.  It could present problems for constituents of Representatives Forbes, Pitts, and Goodlatte, as the members’ districts are near the Route 15 corridor.  House members were provided with a map number (P90/80,000), but not the map, outlining the heritage area’s boundaries.

“Representatives Bartlett and Goode asked that their districts be removed from the heritage area, but their request was rejected in Committee,” said Peyton Knight.  “To refuse such a reasonable request is a rather stunning breach of House tradition.”

The National Center for Public Policy Research, founded in 1982, is a non-partisan, non-profit educational foundation based in Washington, D.C.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.