updated 12/6/2003 3:10:08 PM ET 2003-12-06T20:10:08

One congressman wants $50 million to build a tropical rainforest in Iowa. Another wants $225,000 to repair a swimming pool he and friends clogged with tadpoles when they were kids in Nevada. In Illinois, it’s the restoration of a historic mule barn. In Texas, an oil museum. They’re all part of the year-end spending bill in Congress, a $373 billion package that critics say is packed with pork-barrel projects at a time Congress should be worried about soaring budget deficits.

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“PORK IS PORK,” said Tom Schatz, president of the Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste, which says the spending bill is “stuffed to the brim” with pet projects.

Last week, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, persuaded key lawmakers to set aside $50 million for the rainforest project in Coralville, just outside Iowa City. Organizers call the project an unparalleled opportunity to teach children the wonders of the jungle, showcase clean energy concepts and boost the local economy by drawing tourists from across the Midwest. It would including a 20-story translucent dome.

The project, projected to cost $225 million in all, is the dream of Ted Townsend, a Des Moines businessman who became smitten with the rainforest during a visit to Africa years ago. He runs an engineering company founded by his father, who made a fortune inventing machines that strip rind from pork and stuff hot dogs at high speed.

“There will be no facility like it in the United States. This will have a national scope and, yes, some federal assistance is appropriate,” said project director David Oman. He insists those who label the federal aid as pork are missing the project’s national significance.

MAKING UP FOR YOUTHFUL OFFENSES

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nevada, says his swimming-pool project has more to do with polliwogs than pork.

He says he and some friends were responsible for clogging the drain with tadpoles, causing the pool to be temporarily shut down in the 1950s. He expects Congress to approve the $225,000 to repair the 61-year-old pool in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up in Sparks.

“I have an enormous guilty conscience for putting frogs in the swimming pool when I was about 10 years old,” he said.

Like others who defend the federal money they secure for pet projects, Gibbons is not ashamed to elbow his way to the federal trough on behalf of his constituents.

After all, he reasons, everybody else in Congress does it. And if he didn’t, the money would go to somebody else’s district.

“This is a very meritorious project, one that I am not embarrassed about at all,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday from Las Vegas.

Anti-pork crusaders are unmoved.

“Every town in the country has a public swimming pool. If every one of those got $225,000 from the federal government, that’s how you end up with a $500 billion deficit,” Schatz said.

MORE THAN JUST PORK

The spending bill contains much more than local projects, of course.

It carries big increases for battling the AIDS epidemic in Africa, for veterans health care and for several high-profile White House initiatives. It also would finance most federal agencies through the budget year that started Oct. 1. President Bush has personally pressed Congress to passed it.

In Iowa, Townsend introduced the rainforest idea in the summer of 2001 and put down $5 million of his own in hopes that a man-made rainforest would inspire children the same way he was inspired.

Designers want to create a 1 million-gallon aquarium, a theater, wetlands and prairie, an outdoor trail system and to use the Internet to link schools to programs at its 60,000-square-foot educational center.

Supporters say it would create 400 permanent jobs and have an annual economic impact at $120 million, largely from the 1.5 million visitors projected each year. It also would revitalize 30 acres along the Iowa River now occupied by industry, a sanitation company and the community’s only strip club. Soil studies found contamination, leading to the site’s designation as a federal brownfield.

Grassley, who has reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative, declined an interview with The Associated Press, citing uncertainty over Senate approval of the bill.

The rainforest project was initially tucked into the energy bill. After some pressure from leaders in Congress, Grassley had the project removed, but it resurfaced in the spending bill. The energy bill ultimately failed.

“He doesn’t like to comment on things that aren’t finished yet,” Grassley spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef said Friday.

The project has yet to catch on across Iowa. Last month, a newspaper columnist wrote that the project suffers from a “legitimacy crisis,” while a recent editorial in another newspaper complained that asking for a federal handout gives Iowa a bad name.

“There’s nothing Iowa about begging the federal government for ($50) million,” a Nov. 21 Iowa City Press Citizen editorial stated. “There’s nothing Iowa about a project that won’t pay for itself.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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