There’s more to earmarks than a bridge to nowhere


The bridge to nowhere. The Woodstock Festival museum. An indoor rain forest in Iowa.

Congressional funding earmarks for questionable projects have become a prime target of anti-government ideologues and familiar fodder for post-I-35W bridge collapse arguments against needed public transportation investment.

The nay-sayers natter that we can’t put more taxes into roads, bridges and transit until we get the pork out of the appropriations process. It sounds sensible until you dig below the surface and check the inconvenient facts.

Lesson No. 1: The political process already weeds out the worst of the pork.

Let’s start with the infamous $320 million bridge that would have connected a small Alaskan town with an island airport. Amid national ridicule, federal funding for the project earmarked by the powerful Republican U.S. House transportation chairman was quickly scotched. The same fate befell a $1 million earmark for the Woodstock museum in upstate New York, which Republicans used in an effort to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And the $50 million for the artificial rain forest, a pet project of former U.S. Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was in a 2004 energy bill. The project still isn’t off the ground and the federal money hasn’t been delivered.

That check on abuse got stronger this year with new rules requiring disclosure on the Internet of all earmarks at least two days before a vote. And pork-busting Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina (home of an earmarked federal grant of $500,000 to the Teapot Museum in 2006) claims credit for eliminating $17 billion in earmarks that year.

Lesson No. 2: Earmarks pervade all federal appropriations, including transportation.

The transportation earmarks comprise small fractions of the record 13,000 items approved by the last Republican Congress and the nearly 6,500 items drawn up by the current Democratic congressional leadership. Minnesota’s highway earmarks in 2005 went exclusively to streets, bridges and freeways, and most of the transit earmarks were for bus projects. The U.S. Department of Transportation once tried to launch an offensive on earmarks, but found that most of them were necessary, arose out of local planning processes and would have qualified for funding through merit-based channels.

Lesson No. 3: Bad earmarks are far outnumbered by well-justified ones.

But could, or should, all earmarks be abolished? Maybe in a benevolent dictatorship. As long as we have representative democracy, however, most elected officials will advocate the interests of their constituents and try to bring home the bacon. Those who try to fight the system, such as fiscally conservative former U.S. Rep. David Minge, DFL-Minn., may find themselves losing to rivals more willing to earmark money for their home districts.

And consider this: The alternative to legislative earmarking is to cede all funding decisions to the executive branch, which will use its own political calculus to spread the pork around.

This was never more evident than during President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign when hardly a week passed without a visit to Minnesota by one of his Cabinet secretaries announcing a federal grant to some politically strategic interest group. Since the polls closed, however, they’ve not been seen.

So who’s really doing the most earmarking?

“What has happened with earmarks strikes me as an implicit deal between the executive branch and Congress,” Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress testified before Congress last year. “The executive is perfectly willing to let the legislature make a fool of itself on the 2 percent of federal discretionary spending that contains earmarks if they will leave the other 98 percent to the discretion of the White House.”

But the ranting about congressional earmarks from the no-new-taxes-no-matter-what crowd goes on. Just last week, White House spokesman Alex Conant, reacting to Minnesota U.S. Rep. James Oberstar’s plan to increase the federal gasoline tax a nickel a gallon to upgrade the nation’s at-risk bridges, said: “This is exactly the wrong time to raise gas taxes, when oil is already at record levels. Before we consider raising taxes, the Congress should examine how they set their spending priorities.”

The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t gone up since 1993, during which time inflation has eroded its real value to less than 13 cents. Oberstar’s proposal would have raised $25 billion toward repairing or replacing the worst of the nation’s 73,000 deficient bridges, or just 13 percent of the $188 billion the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it would cost to do the full job. But political opposition forced the congressman to scale back his plan to a $2 billion transfer from other federal needs. That’s enough to solve 1 percent of the problem.

So here’s how to translate Conant’s comment: The only good time to raise taxes is never.