A Tale Of Piggery

Eastern Pennsylvania is a pork paradise. The region has had its economic ups and downs over the years, but it has always been blessed with congressmen who know how to get their snouts into the congressional trough. For years, the standard was set by Rep. Daniel J. Flood, a former Shakespearean actor who wore a cape, waxed his Snidely Whiplash mustache and every year brought millions of federal dollars back to his district. It was Flood, as a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, who required the Pentagon to buy hundreds of thousands of tons of Pennsylvania coal every year which the military did not need and never used. Flood was once re-elected by his grateful constituents despite a 13-count federal indictment accusing him of bribery, perjury and influence peddling.

When Flood resigned in 1980, his mantle was picked up by Republican Joseph McDade, a pug-nosed back-room dealmaker who has served the Scranton area since 1962. McDade, too, has a questionable ethics record. Federal investigators have spent the last four years looking into his relationship with a defense--industry lobbyist, his acceptance of perks from coal companies and his role in steering navy contracts to a man who pleaded guilty to defrauding the government of $12 million. (McDade's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, says his client "has done nothing wrong, " adding that after four years "the prosecution's motives must be seriously questioned.') But no matter: McDade delivers. As a member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, McDade makes sure that the Pentagon keeps on buying that useless anthracite coal-and much more. No wonder McDade was reelected by a landslide in 1990, winning both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

McDade has achieved the dream of most pork-barrel congressmen, a living memorial, indeed two: the University of Scranton's new Joseph M. McDade Center for Technology and Applied Research, and the county's McDade Park, with its Anthracite Coal Museum. But the congressman's crowning achievement is a historic theme park called Steamtown. It doesn't look like much, more like a shut-down factory yard waiting for the scrap dealers to arrive. On rusty tracks sit some railroad cars and locomotives from the 1940s and '50s. Oddly, for what is supposed to be America's national railroad museum, the only two restored engines are labeled "Canadian Pacific " and were, in fact, made in Canada. There is little evidence of the $40 million that American taxpayers have already spent on Steamtown. Still, at least there is a Steamtown-and the way Joe McDade got the federal government to pay for it is a small classic in the annals of pork-barrel polities.

Steamtown is run by the National Park Service, those folks in the tan ranger hats who brought you natural wonders like Yellowstone and Yosemite and historic sites like Gettysburg and Valley Forge. But the Park Service had nothing to do with creating Steamtown, or even much say in the matter. Steamtown was a failed experiment, dreamed up for overenthusiastic Scranton town boosters, that was rescued from financial collapse by Joe McDade.

Two principles of pork are: the bigger the bill or the later the hour, the better the chance to slide something by. McDade used both advantages. He chose to slip Steamtown - at the asking price of a mere $35 million - into the gargantuan $576 billion omnibus spending bill that lurched through Congress in the final hours of the 1986 session. McDade accomplished this by doing some midnight business with a baron on the Senate Appropriations Committee, James McClure of Idaho. McClure needed McDade's support in the House for his own pet projects, such as an authentic Bavarian resort in the Idaho mountains. McDade swapped him for Steamtown. McClure drove a hard bargain, cutting McDade's request to $20 million, but McDade did not mind. He understood another enduring principle of pork: if the camel gets his nose under the tent, it's only a matter of time before he gets the rest of himself in, too. The Park Service was not altogether happy to receive this gift from McDade. Steamtown at the time was running an excursion line that charged $19.50 to attract very few riders. "The federal government will not become a dumping ground for white elephants, " said Park Service spokesman Duncan Morrow. "If Steamtown officials just want our money so they can continue to operate the excursion, we are not interested. "

Two years later, the Park Service was running an excursion. Not only that, they were embarked on an ambitious project to create a working rail yard with 18 to 20 coaled-up locomotives steaming away. To give the project respectability, its name was changed from Steamtown USA to Steamtown National Historical Site. Some railroad experts were skeptical. William Withun, the Smithsonian Institution's curator of transportation, said the project was so large it would cause "an eventual financial hemorrhage " for the Park Service. John White, a former transportation curator, called Steamtown "a third-rate collection in a place to which it has no relevance. " There were already better collections in St. Louis, Sacramento and Strasburg, Pa., noted Locomotive and Railway Preservation magazine, which added that restoring Steamtown's equipment would cost another $30 million to $35 million.

Meanwhile, the Park Service was so strapped for funds that Yellowstone and Glacier were cutting hours and staff. Salaries were so low at Yosemite that employees were applying for food stamps. Not far from Scranton, Philadelphia's Independence Hall was physically falling apart, according to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal. Despite its 5 million annual visitors, the place where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence was 90th on the Park Service's priority list. At the top were places like Steamtown and the Huntington, W.Va., theater that Robert Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was turning into a cineplex.

Steamtown turned out to be-surprise!--more costly than projected. The price tag of repairing one crumbling bridge jumped from $2 million to $7.5 million. The rail yard was found to be densely contaminated with PCBs. During the second summer of Park Service operations in 1990, all eight passenger cars in one train came uncoupled while traveling at speeds up to 50 miles an hour. " They have to learn that this is not some Christmas-tree train, " said Arnold Embleton, one of the conductors and a 42-year veteran of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, "or they're going to get somebody killed. "

Still, the money kept flowing. Not because there were any public hearings, or expert testimony taken, or even any spending bill authorized by the appropriate committee. The money, $40 million by last year, flowed through the back door "add-ons " slipped into spending bills at the last minute. "Fortunately Senator Robert Byrd is a personal friend of mine, " explained McDade. "We've worked close to 30 years together. "

By last fall McDade decided to ask for a formal authorization bill providing another $40 million to finish the project-and $6.5 million every year thereafter to run it. Going through the normal legislative process risked exposing Steamtown to scrutiny and real debate. But McDade knew he had finally reached the point every pork-barreling congressman longs for, when he can cry to his colleagues, "We've got too much money invested to kill this project now! Think of all the money we'd be wasting! "

It is possible that Congress will balk at throwing more money away on Steamtown. But don't hold your breath. McDade is now the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, which gives him considerable leverage over his colleagues. When they come begging, as they do every year, to the committee's ornate chambers in the Capitol, seeking their own dams and highways and parks, McDade will be in a position to trade: his vote for their projects, their votes for his. In Congress, compromise usually means everyone wins, except the taxpayer.

This and the following story are excerpted from "Adventures in Porkland, " a forthcoming book by Brian Kelly, illustrated by Pat Oliphant, to be published by Villard/Random House in September.