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The Bridge to Nowhere and the politics of earmarks

Fri, Jan 19th, 2007
Posted in Commentary

Just yesterday someone told me they thought our past US Representative Gil Gutknecht lost his seat in Congress because he forgot about constituent service.

"You mean," I said, "he quit returning peoples calls?"

"No," he said. "Look around, can you find one special project in the district he could take credit for?"

"Oh you mean he didn't bring home any earmarks!"

I told the person I thought the Iraq war may have had more to do with Gutknecht losing or perhaps the huge budget deficit. But, indeed, to his credit, in my opinion, Gil wasn't considered one of the kings of pork.

The conversation struck me because it hasn't been very long since I was approached to work for a company who "sells" earmarks to local units of government. Yes, it has gotten to that point.

By definition an earmark is an appropriation set aside by politicians outside the regular funding formulas for "special projects."

The most famous of these projects was the "bridge to nowhere" earmark for $223 million of tax dollars to build a bridge in Alaska to an island with a population of 50 people. It created quite a stir last year and was, quite frankly, just one of many "special projects" for federal legislators. Past Majority leader Dennis Hastert of Illinois was able to acquire $150,000 for the Batavia Police Department; $2 million for Waubonsee Community College to build a science building; $250,000 for Aurora Municipal Airport; $200,000 for a waste-water project in Newark, Ill.; $750,000 for the Provena Mercy Medical Center and $450,000 for the health department in Rock Falls, Ill.

Sometimes these "special projects" go to state or local governments like the bridge in Alaska but often they go to private businesses under the guise of serving the public good like $200,000 to Ocean Spray to market white cranberry juice in England or $2,000,000 to the University of the Incarnate Word, a Catholic college in San Antonio, Texas for a parking facility.

Earmarks have ballooned during the past decade: Citizens Against Government Waste reported the number of earmarks increased to 13,997 in 2005, up from 1,439 in 1995. The 1970 Defense Appropriations bill had 12 earmarks, the 1980 one had 62 earmarks. The 2005 Defense Appropriations bill had 2,671 earmarks embedded in it. Included was money to eradicate brown tree snakes in Guam and a spray paint simulator in Pine City, Minnesota. What brown tree snakes or paint simulators have to do with the defense of the country is beyond me.

President Ronald Reagan once vetoed a transportation spending bill because it had 152 earmarks in it. The latest transportation bill had 6,371 earmarks in it including a $3,000,000 one for dust control on Arkansas rural roads. Last year federal lawmakers tucked $64 billion dollars into spending bills with more than 12,000 "special projects," often anonymously.

Congress is currently taking up legislation to curb these abuses. Something simple like just having to have your name on "your" earmark is a struggle for them to pass. Opposition from folks like West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd the true "King of Pork" will be hard to fight.

Sen Byrd's argument, " I say to Senators that we're treading on some dangerous constitutional grounds with this bombast against earmarks. The misguided cries to do away with earmarks have constitutional ramifications about who controls the power of the purse."

This comes from one of the most powerful people in the Senate. If you want Congress to really make change, they need to hear from you! You can make a difference! If you don't call or e-mail your Senator or Congressman they'll never know you want this to change.

Oh by the way. When President Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill a half century ago, there were two earmarks in that transportation bill. Last year the Minnesota legislature passed a transportation bill for the first time with two earmarks in it. It's a slippery slope when politicians find they can bribe the people with their own money.

Kevin Kelleher lives in Houston County.

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