Oberstar to Bush: Support Funding for Bridge Fixing. Bush to Oberstar: Fix the Earmark Issue First


OK, President Bush and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar didn’t directly address these comments to one another, but they might as well have, and although Bush’s complaints about congressional pork projects may have been a mere excuse to oppose domestic spending, Oberstar is one of the kings of the House where earmarks for roads and bridges are concerned.

The details on that below, plus a spirited defense of earmarking and a link to a complete list of the 74 Oberstar earmarks worth half a billion bucks. But first the background.

The Background
In the wake of last week’s collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, proposed Monday that taxes be raised to create a special fund to repair or replace tens of thousands of highway bridges that are rated as structurally deficient. (Earlier reports said Oberstar was proposing a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax. Oberstar, a Democrat, put out a press release Thursday saying that was just one option to raise the funds needed.)

Bush was asked about it at a press conference Thursday and he deflected the idea, saying that before taxes are raised, Congress should reform the system that enables individual members of Congress to steer Highway Trust Fund dollars to their preferred projects without passing through the priority list of the state transportation departments.

That system, called “earmarks,” allows a few members who hold key positions in the House or on the right committees to earmark very large sums for favored road, bridge and transit projects. Said Bush:

“From my perspective, the way it seems to have worked is that each member on that committee gets to set his or her own priority first, and then whatever is left over is spent through a funding formula. That’s not the right way to prioritize the people’s money.

So before we raise taxes which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, let’s make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes.

It may be a bit late in his term for Bush to portray himself as offended by politicization, or as one who wants the professionals and the bureaucrats to decide the technical matters. But earmarking has been growing fast in recent years and the practice does raise obvious questions about whether resources should be rationed according to seniority, committee assignment and other indicators of political pull.

Oberstar’s spokester, John Schadl, said later in the day that Bush must have misunderstood Oberstar’s proposal. Oberstar wants a special new fund dedicated to bridge repair and allows no room in the program for members of Congress or the White House to designate special projects. The idea is that non-partisan professionals would decide the order of the bridge repair jobs based on no considerations other than public safety.

The question of earmarks is particularly relevant to Oberstar, and to Minnesotans, because Oberstar is one of those members whose seniority and long service on the Transportation Committee has enabled him to personally designate hundreds of millions of federal dollars to projects, mostly in his northeastern Minnesota district.

In 2005, Congress enacted a big five-year $293 billion transportation funding bill called SAFETEA-LU (I know, I know, I mocked the name in a previous post) that included a record 6,371 earmarks costing $24.2 billion. That’s 8.4 percent of all the money in the overall bill. (The unearmarked money is distributed to the state transportation departments, which uses the money according to a theoretically less-politicized priority list of projects.)

Oberstar, who was then the ranking Democrat on the committee, earmarked $250 million, more than any other House Democrat and the fourth-most of any member of Congress overall. All of that money has been or will be spent in Minnesota, and the vast majority will be spent in his district, which covers Duluth and the Iron Range.

The Bridge to Nowhere
If history is any guide, there are even brighter days ahead for road projects in the northland. Now that the Democrats control Congress and Oberstar chairs the committee, he will have even more federal transportation dollars at his discretion. Alaska Republican Don Young, who chaired the committee at the time of SAFETEA-LU, put his earmark on $1 billion worth of spending in that one law, including the construction funds for the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Young was the No. 1 earmarker, followed by Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of California (coincidentally, chairman at the time of the super-powerful House Ways and Means Committee) with $755 million worth of earmarks; Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., (who was speaker of the House at the time) with $500 million, and Oberstar, with $250 million.

After that, the per-member earmark numbers fall quickly. The top-four members, whose combined constituents comprise less than 1 percent of the country, account for more than 10 percent of the earmark dollars.

All of these numbers were compiled for Black Ink and the Minnesota Monitor by Keith Ashdown, the able chief investigator of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based group that helped shine a spotlight on the issue of earmarks. Ashdown pierced the veil of legislative pettifoggery to first discover and expose the Bridge to Nowhere, a $223 million federal contribution to a project to connect the Alaskan mainland to an island with a population of 50.

Ashdown agrees with the main point of Bush’s remarks on Thursday. “Earmarks distort spending priorities,” he said. It’s true that most of the dollars are awarded according to a complex state-by-state formula and then spent according to what the state road and bridge engineers decide is the priority. But a growing portion of all spending is earmarked, transportation is the biggest area, and for that portion of the appropriation, he said, “you clearly substitute a calculus of political power for a calculus of common good.”

He finds credible the estimates that it would take $1.6 trillion to repair the damage of years of infrastructure neglect. If so, “we need to put maintenance spending programs on steroids, not just bump it up a notch.” Bush has resisted Oberstar’s and Young’s efforts to increase infrastructure spending, Ashdown said, which is why he is skeptical that Bush is now sincerely troubled by the idea of earmarks. But he does believe that however much the government spends should be spent in the areas of greatest need.

Earmarks Defended
Schadl, Oberstar’s able spokester, says the idea that unelected officials should decide all cases “assumes that formula funding addresses everything perfectly and there is never a project that need special attention, and that people who live in a particular district should never be able to appeal to their member for help getting a project that doesn’t meet the criteria of the bureaucrats in the Department of Transportation.” He sees it as constituent service, the right to petition your representative and democracy in action. And Schadl stands ready to tick off a list of road projects that occurred because of Oberstar earmarks and have made life better and made driving safer for Minnesotans.

Of course, the idea that a congressman might be able to overrule a bureaucrat occasionally is different from the idea that a small number of congressmen should have 10 or 20 times more influence over transportation spending than their less senior or well-positioned colleagues. But Schadl is pragmatic and unabashed, saying:

“Yes, the congressman has the authority and the ability to direct funding back into his district and his state and that’s not something he’s going to apologize for.”

He also said that Bush’s effort to change the subject from whether more money is needed to fix bridges to the issue of earmarks is a smokescreen. Oberstar has been calling for more money for infrastructure repair for years. Bush has been fighting him. Now, when everyone can see the need for urgent repairs, Bush is getting philosophical about a practice that’s been around a long time.

When the next big multi-year transportation program comes through, earmark reform can be discussed, Schadl said. “But that bridge fell down last week in our state. There are other bridges in that class. People are worried about whether it is safe to drive over them. If the president is saying he’s not going to fix our nation’s bridges until we’ve addressed his philosophical concern about earmarks, that’s a problem.”

For the truly obsessed…

… or those who know their Minnesota road-rail-and-bikeway projects really well and think they can tell whether they should have been funded, a complete list of Oberstar’s earmarks in SAFETEA-LU can be downloaded from click here, go to the bottom of the story, and click on the link to download a PDF file.