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Feinstein's $4 Bn Beverly Hills Earmark

By Kimberley Strassel

Move over Bridge to Nowhere. Congress is back in town, and clearly back to business even uglier than usual.

It takes hard work to come up with an earmark more egregious than that infamous Alaskan bridge, but California's Dianne Feinstein is an industrious gal. Her latest pork--let's call it Rambo's View--deserves to be the poster child for everything wrong with today's greedy earmark process.

The senator's $4 billion handout (yes, you read that right) to wealthy West L.A. (yes, you read that right, too) is the ultimate example of how powerful members use earmarks to put their own parochial interests above national ones--in this case the needs of veterans. It's a case study in how Congress uses the appropriations process to substitute its petty wants for the considered judgments of agency professionals. And it's just the latest proof that, no matter how much outrage the American public might display over these deals--and no matter how often Congress promises to clean up its act--the elected have no intention of reforming the process.

The pork here revolves around the West Los Angeles Medical Center, though this is no average veterans' facility. Donated to the government in 1888, the center is 387 sprawling, prime real-estate acres in the middle of tony West L.A. More than twice the size of the National Mall, it is surrounded by the mansions and playgrounds of the city's elite, including the Bel Air Country Club and the Beverly Hills estates of Sylvester Stallone, Barry Bonds and Tim McGraw (to name a few).

Huge portions of the facility are also a veritable ghost town. It isn't just that 387 acres is an enormous space, and far larger than any one veteran's community in today's America might ever need. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Los Angeles County also falls on the lowest end in terms of the percentage of veterans living in the area. Nationally, veterans make up about 12.7% of people over the age of 18; the county's average is below 8.5%. Of 91 buildings on campus, 21 are today partially or wholly vacant. Meanwhile, the number of enrolled veterans in that facility is expected to decline by nearly a quarter over the next 20 years.

Which is why, when the Department of Veteran's Affairs set up a process in 2002 to study its infrastructure and rationalize its facilities, it designated the West L.A. center as one of 18 sites that might be downsized, any extra land being used to produce more revenue for veterans' needs. Under law, 108 acres of the L.A. site can't be touched, but the remaining 200-plus acres sit in the middle of a highly desirable real estate area and could yield significant financial gain. The VA has yet to make any decisions, but according to government estimates, even a modest reuse of the property--say leasing out excess acreage--could result in an extraordinary $4 billion for better care for veterans everywhere.

Given the recent uproar over Walter Reed, and Congress's many calls that we do more for the men and women returning home wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, you'd think no elected representative could possibly have the chutzpah to impede the VA's considered attempts to inject efficiency into its facilities and provide better care for its constituents. Think ever so much again. It turns out the well-to-do in West L.A. consider the veteran's center grounds their own little rolling, personal park, and they want it to stay that way--thank you very much.

The area has in fact revved up a powerful lobby machine to ensure America's veterans don't get anything extra at the expense of their backyard. Ms. Feinstein, California Congressman Henry Waxman and other luminaries have united to publicly bash the VA's plans, and instead demand the "preservation" of the ground for local use. An overwrought Los Angeles Times weighed in, bemoaning that so few L.A. children live within "walking distance of a public place to play," and demanding this "treasured resource" not be ruined by "thoughtless" development. Word is that some Hollywood luminaries who live in Mr. Stallone's neck of the woods have also complained that any changes would impede views from their 15,000-square-foot manses.

Ms. Feinstein, who in the last election received some of her largest donations from the rich area, has been only too happy to come to its defense. She honed in on the military construction and veterans affairs bill--a sensitive spending vehicle that few Republicans would dare vote against, and that President Bush would be loath to veto. She then slipped in an earmark provision that would bar the VA from disposing or leasing any of the ground. Thus a potential $4 billion worth of help and aid for our nation's veterans goes bye-bye in the name of preserving a view for those Hollywood actors who play veterans in the movies.

The indefatigable earmark warrior, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, offered an amendment this week to strip Ms. Feinstein's earmark. California Sen. Barbara Boxer rose in righteous indignation on the Senate floor, and fizzed that she would never dream of leveling such a direct "attack" against South Carolina. The point of this speech was to remind her Senate colleagues that what's hers is hers, and that the penalty for voting against her and Ms. Feinstein's California pork would be the targeting of projects in their own states. They got the message. In the final vote, only 25 senators had the courage to put the nation's veterans above Ms. Feinstein's scenery, including just one Democrat (Sen. Russ Feingold).

Gory details aside, Ms. Feinstein has set a concerning new precedent. Up to now, Congress has had a healthy respect for the decisions of the VA's infrastructure review. That may well change, as more in Congress see Ms. Feinstein's success as an invitation to bring their own parochial concerns to the VA's decision-making process.

There is still one hope that some brave soul will take up this cause and attempt to get Rambo's View stripped from this bill during the House-Senate conference. Democrats have already reneged, and reneged again, on campaign pledges to clean up the earmark swamp, and in any event aren't likely to rally against a powerful member of their own party. But if Republicans had a collective IQ of even 70, they'd be making this particularly offensive pork item a rallying cry that they could use to demonstrate a renewed commitment to spending reform.

What is clear is that if this pork stands, no senator should again be allowed to bemoan a lack of veterans' funds without having this week's vote waved in his face.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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