Bridges to nowhere: Earmarks gone wild

By Michael Grunwald Published:

By Michael Grunwald

Last fall, after House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, earmarked $223 million to link the remote town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the more remote island of Gravina (population 50), the Bridge to Nowhere became a national symbol of congressional porkmania, lampooned by Leno, Letterman and Limbaugh. It was the most brazen of the record-breaking 6,300-plus earmarks inserted by individual members of Congress into the record-breaking $286 billion transportation bill. Even Parade Magazine, not known for its muckraking, featured the project as a poster child for government waste.

Young, a 33-year House veteran, defiantly boasted that he had stuffed the bill like a turkey. And Stevens, a 37-year senator, furiously threatened to resign if Congress shifted money away from Gravina and another bridge to nowhere near Anchorage a bridge actually named Don Youngs Way, near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. But the projects became such an embarrassment to Republicans that the chairmen agreed to withdraw both earmarks. Budget hawks, green activists and clean-government types hailed the defeat of the bridges as a victory for fiscal sanity.

Except that the bridges werent defeated.

The Republican-controlled Congress still gave Alaska the $452 million it had requested for the two bridges, merely removing the earmark directing where the state should spend the money. Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R), who was once Stevens junior colleague in the Senate, intends to spend that money on the bridges.

In Washington, pork has become synonymous with congressional earmarks; in fact, most media outlets including The Washington Post formally define it as such. So does the new Pig Book, which was released this month by Citizens Against Government Waste and catalogs 375 of last years goofiest earmarks, from the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative to the Sparta Teapot Museum. But outside Washington, most Americans think of pork as wasteful spending. They dont really care whether its earmarked.

And they shouldnt. Anti-pork activists cited the stuffed-like-a-turkey transportation bill generally and its bridges to nowhere specifically as evidence of the need for earmark reforms, and they managed to get a few modest ones into the otherwise toothless lobbying bill that is currently floundering in the House. But theyve fallen into the classic Beltway trap of demanding procedural solutions to substantive problems. Congressional earmarks have nearly quadrupled in a decade, and many of them are outrageous. But earmarks dont produce pork.

Porkers produce pork.

Murkowskis well-connected family his daughter Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is now Stevenss junior colleague in the Senate just happens to own land on Gravina. Youngs family just happens to own land that will benefit from Don Youngs Way. But the bridges to nowhere, the turkey of a transportation bill and the earmark explosion are all symptoms of much deeper problems: a Congress that essentially functions as a pork dispenser, a Congress that rarely seems to debate anything but the division of the spoils of government, a Congress that is essentially run Don Youngs Way.

Politicians have always cared about pork, but in the past federal transportation bills at least tried to address major transportation problems. In the 1950s, the interstate highway system was created to bolster national security as well as individual mobility in the automotive age. In 1991, Congress passed a transportation bill with funding for buses, trains and bicycle paths as well as traditional highways, a response to car-dependent trends in American culture and federal policies.

By 2005, the interstate highway system was complete, but America still faced a variety of transportation crises. Traffic was awful and getting worse, idling sport-utility vehicles were contributing to global warming, mass-transit systems were crumbling, and nearly one-third of the nations urban bridges were rated structurally deficient or obsolete. But the debate over the transportation bill avoided those pressing issues. It was all about who got what, and how much.

Young initially proposed a $375 billion bill called the Transportation Equity Act a Legacy for Users (producing the acronym TEA-LU Youngs wife is named Lu), but President Bush threatened to veto any measure exceeding $256 billion. And since the bill is funded by gasoline taxes, donor states that guzzled the most gas fought for funding formulas assuring them the most funding. The only other real battle involved earmarks. A few fiscal conservatives, led by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., complained that earmarks had increased by 1,200 percent since the 1991 bill. They pushed for the bills $24 billion worth of earmarks to go to state transportation departments instead. But they lost. The Senate even resoundingly rejected Coburns efforts to kill the bridges to nowhere, before national ridicule killed their earmarks, if not their funding.

News accounts focused almost exclusively on the highway bills earmarks, as if the rest of the bill was non-pork. But those earmarks, while unprecedented, cost less than 10 percent of the overall bill. Most of the money went directly to the states, and as the story of the bridges to nowhere shows, sending money to states is no guarantee it will be spent wisely. Earmarks were just part of the bills larger public policy problem: Instead of addressing the problems of the cities and suburbs where most Americans live, such as traffic, smog, lousy mass transit and dilapidated roads and bridges, it will subsidize sprawl by promoting new highways in sparsely developed areas roads to nowhere, so to speak.

Thats what most states do with their federal funding, as the Brookings Institution has documented in recent studies. Thirty states have laws prohibiting the use of gas-tax revenue for anything but highways, and federal rules make it much easier for states to finance highways than transit; its no coincidence that on Capitol Hill the transportation bill is known as the highway bill. Members of Congress who want to promote light rail, buses or any other transportation options often have no choice but to turn to earmarks.

Most states also have strong biases toward building new roads over repairing old ones all politicians love to cut ribbons and spending in rural as opposed to metropolitan areas. Ohio, for example, distributes gas-tax revenue to all its counties equally, so rural Harrison County (population 15,000) receives as much as urban Cuyahoga County (population 1.4 million). The result is billions of dollars for speculative sprawl roads like the bridges to nowhere, whose stated purpose was to expand development into relatively pristine areas of Alaska.

There is little evidence that Republican leaders pushed TEA-LU because they love sprawl. They simply saw the bill as a politically popular goodie bag for their members, as well as special interests that benefit from new roads home builders; oil companies; and a coalition of cement producers, engineering firms and other highway-related groups that led the push for the bill as Americans for Transportation Mobility.

That acronym was probably not a coincidence.

This pork platter of a bill, in other words, is a product of the corruption of the Republican Party not necessarily the kind of corruption that sends politicians like former congressman Randy Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., to prison, but the corruption of the partys limited-government principles. The conservative revolutionaries who seized control of Congress in 1994 vowed to slash the size of government, but many of them quickly came to appreciate governments value as an ATM. Republicans have dramatically increased federal spending ever since, doling out hundreds of billions of dollars the government doesnt have. And although Bush has talked tough last week he threatened to veto a larded-up spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, which included a $700 million Gulf Coast Railroad to Nowhere pushed by Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi he hasnt vetoed a bill in his six years in office.

Democrats do not have clean hands in this game Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va) recently gave up his post on the ethics committee amid allegations of conflicts of interests over his earmarks, and legendary Senate appropriator Robert Byrd (W.Va.) still rivals Jimmy Dean when it comes to the distribution of pork but they no longer control Congress, and they are not the ones who promised to end the bloated Beltway culture of big government.

Instead, Congress often seems to have devolved into a policy-free zone, where pork not only greases the wheels of legislation, but is the very purpose of legislation. Last years energy bill, enacted the same day as the transportation bill, did not reduce high gas prices or U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but it did shower billions of dollars on well-connected energy firms. As former GOP Senate aide Winslow T. Wheeler detailed in his legislate-and-tell book The Wastrels of Defense, Congress even turned its post-Sept. 11, 2001 military bills into receptacles for pork, including gyms, chapels, parking garages and museums. What was once a predictable but part-time activity has become a full-time preoccupation that permeates Congresss activities and decision-making processes, Wheeler wrote.

Egregious earmarks are certainly a symptom of this phenomenon, such as the largesse that Cunningham stashed into military bills for a contractor who bribed him and the economically and environmentally dubious water projects that the Army Corps of Engineers was building in Louisiana when it should have been protecting New Orleans. Thats why some proposed earmark reform makes sense, especially rules that would identify their source, require votes on them and prevent them from slipping into huge bills at the last minute.

But it is hard to see how preventing individual members of Congress from proposing individual measures even measures designed to benefit their constituents or contributors would serve the cause of democracy.

Take the much-maligned Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative, which earned Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., the Pig Book Flushing Our Money Down the Toilet Award. This earmark directed the Navy to study water-free urinals, which could someday benefit a company that manufactures them in Ehlers district. But it could also benefit taxpayers. Ehlers points out that every water-free urinal saves about 40,000 gallons of water a year, which helps the environment and the Treasury; they are also much cheaper to build and install than traditional urinals. The Army is already using them, and saving money on them, but Ehlers says he couldnt get Navy bureaucrats to request the study on their own.

Thats what earmarks can do break through the inertia, he said. If this didnt have urinal in the title, no one would make a fuss. The fuss is reminiscent of the medias gleeful mocking of federal studies of bovine burping and flatulence; it turns out that those gaseous cows are a major source of methane, which is a major source of global warming.

Many earmarks deserve a fuss. For example, taxpayers will pay $3 million for the richly ironic earmark that Young tucked into his transportation bill for a documentary to raise awareness about advancements in Alaskas infrastructure. And the current earmark epidemic does reflect a debased congressional culture; GOP lobbyist-felon Jack Abramoff reportedly described the appropriations process as an earmark favor factory. But its folly to think that stopping earmarks will stop bridges, roads and trains to nowhere. As long as Don Young wields power, hell find a way to fund Don Youngs Way.

Come to think of it, that documentary might be worth every dime.

2006, The Washington Post

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