Some law­mak­ers seek re­turn of pork

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

Alaska of­fi­cials have put the fi­nal ki­bosh on the in­fa­mous “bridge to nowhere” — a $400 mil­lion project tucked into the fed­eral trans­porta­tion plan 10 years ago that be­came the sym­bol of Wash­ing­ton pork, spawned mas­sive voter out­rage and for­ever changed the way the gov­ern­ment does busi­ness.

State of­fi­cials con­cluded late last month that the project was too ex­pen­sive and too ex­trav­a­gant for now, bring­ing to an end a 40-year push by lo­cals in Alaska’s far south­west­ern cor­ner to con­struct a per­ma­nent link be­tween the city of Ketchikan and the air­port that serves it.

“The thing that just ended it was the econ­omy,” Ketchikan Mayor Lew Wil­liams said af­ter the state of­fi­cially de­cided against the bridge, con­clud­ing that it made more sense to im­prove the ferry sys­tem that car­ries pas­sen­gers from the main­land to an air­port across a 1,000-foot strait of wa­ter.

The bridge was an “ear­mark,” or one of those projects law­mak­ers slipped into bills to direct money to po­lit­i­cally im­por­tant causes back home. But in the hands of op­po­nents, the bridge be­came The Ear­mark — the worst of Wash­ing­ton waste.

“That was a big one. It just really hit the pub­lic con­scious­ness. Peo­ple could understand it — the bridge to nowhere,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can and prom­i­nent anti-ear­mark cru­sader who served in the House dur­ing the bridge fight.

Known lo­cally as the Grav­ina Is­land ac­cess project, it was meant to be a per­ma­nent con­nec­tion be­tween Ketchikan, with a pop­u­la­tion of 8,000, and Grav­ina Is­land, with a pop­u­la­tion of 50, but also home to the re­gion’s in­ter­na­tional air­port.

Alaska’s pow­er­ful con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, in­clud­ing the top House Repub­li­can on the Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee and the top Se­nate Repub­li­can on the Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, man­aged to se­cure more than $300 mil­lion in fed­eral money through ear­marks, which were the equiv­a­lents of line-item or­ders telling fed­eral bu­reau­crats where to send the money.

For ear­mark op­po­nents, who had been fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle for years, the bridge was a gift — a project that amounted to nearly $8 mil­lion for ev­ery res­i­dent of Grav­ina Is­land. Keith Ash­down, then an in­ves­ti­ga­tor at Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense, dubbed it the “bridge to nowhere,” and a cru­sade was started.

82-15 vote

The bridge proved to be strangely re­silient, be­gin­ning with a 2005 bill spon­sored by Sen. Tom Coburn to try to cut it. The Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can pro­posed tak­ing the money and shift­ing it to Louisiana. Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina had just plowed through the re­gion, rip­ping apart roads and bridges.

He lost, and it wasn’t even close. The Se­nate backed the bridge on an 82-15 vote, with sen­a­tors not so much de­fend­ing the bridge as much as they were making a state­ment about their right to ear­marks them­selves.

The pub­lic, how­ever, saw it dif­fer­ently. Fed up with bal­loon­ing fed­eral spend­ing un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, Repub­li­can vot­ers be­gan to com­plain.

Some mem­bers of Congress who had es­chewed ear­marks — in­clud­ing Mr. Coburn, Sen. John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, and Mr. Flake — be­gan to force more em­bar­rass­ing votes.

Af­ter one high-pro­file Repub­li­can, Rep. Duke Cun­ning­ham, pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribery for us­ing ear­marks to en­rich a sup­porter, Demo­cratic lead­ers vowed make re­forms, in­clud­ing bring­ing more trans­parency to the process when they took con­trol of Congress in 2007.

Sen. Barack Obama, who gave up ear­marks amid the back­lash, took the pres­i­den­tial of­fice in 2009 on a prom­ise of even more scru­tiny from his ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the num­bers and dol­lar amounts of ear­marks dipped as Democrats con­sol­i­dated power.

Along the way, Mr. Flake and oth­ers stepped up their as­saults, offering amend­ments to try to strip ear­marks from bills. Mr. Flake said he went to the floor hun­dreds of times and re­mem­bers just one vic­tory: when the House voted against a Christ­mas tree project in North Carolina. The only rea­son that one suc­ceeded was be­cause Democrats ea­ger to pun­ish the project’s spon­sor joined anti-ear­mark Repub­li­cans.

Still, the pub­lic at­ten­tion was hav­ing an ef­fect. Some law­mak­ers be­gan with­draw­ing their own ear­marks for fear of be­ing em­bar­rassed.

The fi­nal demise of the ear­mark was se­cured when vot­ers elected a Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity to the House in 2010, putting Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a life­long ear­mark op­po­nent, in the speak­er­ship. Mr. Boehner pushed Repub­li­cans to im­pose a ban on all ear­marks, forc­ing Democrats, who still con­trolled the Se­nate, to ac­cept the pro­hi­bi­tion. The ban re­mains to this day.

Mr. Coburn, who re­tired from the Se­nate at the end of last year, said it was vot­ers who dragged Congress into the post-pork era.

“The big spenders may have won the Se­nate vote, but the tax­payer back­lash that fol­lowed en­sured the bridge would ul­ti­mately go nowhere and put an end to con­gres­sional ear­mark­ing al­to­gether,” he said. “What I learned from this and my other ex­pe­ri­ences in Congress is Wash­ing­ton will never change it­self, but with per­sis­tence, over­sight has the power to stop stupid spend­ing in its tracks.”

‘We’ve neutered our­selves’

Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Repub­li­can who cham­pi­oned the bridge and re­mains one of Congress’ big­gest cham­pi­ons of ear­marks, ar­gues that his col­leagues have for­feited part of their power of the purse, which the Con­sti­tu­tion del­e­gated to the leg­isla­tive branch.

“I’m frus­trated in the sense that as a leg­isla­tive body — sent to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to rep­re­sent the peo­ple — we’ve neutered our­selves,” Mr. Young said in a state­ment to The Wash­ing­ton Times. “We took away our abil­ity to be part of the sys­tem de­fined by the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

He said giv­ing up ear­marks isn’t “good gov­ern­ment; it is bad gov­ern­ment,” be­cause Congress spends just as much but no longer de­cides what projects re­ceive the money. In­stead, mem­bers of Congress turn over that power to bu­reau­crats in the ex­ec­u­tive branch.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we let a bunch of

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The $400 mil­lion “bridge to nowhere” would have crossed the Ton­gass Nar­rows that sep­a­rates the Alaskan city of Ketchikan from Grav­ina Is­land. The pro­posed project be­came a poster child for pork and ul­ti­mately killed con­gres­sional ear­marks.

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