Transportation bill means temptation for earmarks
It’s often cliché to say that history repeats itself. But when it happens over and over again, cliché becomes reality. History is currently repeating itself when it comes to transportation funding and earmarks.
The Transportation Trust Fund is set to run out in August and some members of Congress are anxious to exploit that issue to allow the return of unfettered pork spending.
Earlier this year Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) suggested bringing back earmarks. Now former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas), who is vying for his old congressional seat, has joined Sen. Durbin in publicly supporting the return of earmarks, as well. This comes as no surprise considering that Sen. Durbin and former Rep. Tiahrt were major appropriators during the heyday of runway spending. Unfortunately, the transportation bill just may be the vehicle that opens the door to allow the return of earmarks.
Pork spending, especially with regards to transportation, is popular on both sides of the aisle. Members of Congress have a soft heart when it comes to transportation earmarks, not because they keep constituents safe by building better bridges or filling those annoying potholes, but because they provide excellent photo ops. There aren’t many pictures of elected officials holding up a piece of paper designating funds for a university research grant, but images of lawmakers holding a shovel next to a new bypass or bridge are commonplace.
Earmarks allow members of Congress to show their constituents what they’ve done for them. The pork projects amount to taxpayer-funded campaign ads for incumbent lawmakers.
Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere”? Back in 2005, this useless pork provision was slipped in while the transportation bill was being considered for reauthorization. The project, spearheaded by two powerful members of Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), sought to connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island, an island with 50 residents and the Ketchikan International Airport. The price tag for this boondoggle topped $223 million.
Unfortunately, even though strong public sentiment and common sense were against the carve-outs, the Alaska duo fought hard to keep the funding intact. When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried to reassign the funds for the Bridge to Nowhere to the hard-hit Gulf Coast states following Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Stevens threatened to resign if his pork project wasn’t funded.
The sheer stupidity of the project ultimately killed the Bridge to Nowhere. The media picked up on the story and the bridge quickly became the poster child for government waste and abuse. Sen. Stevens was forced to pull the earmark from the spending bill; a minor, but symbolic, victory for taxpayers. It is safe to say that this project helped start the anti-earmark movement, which eventually led to a moratorium on the pricey pork projects. While that moratorium applies to most federal spending, it doesn’t manage to prevent lawmakers from sneaking earmarks into the transportation bill.
The Bridge to Nowhere isn’t the only example of transportation earmarks gone awry; carve-outs like these have a long history of popularity. Congress spent $800,000 on a bus to connect California vacationers to destinations like Disneyland and the Anaheim Convention Center. The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, gobbled up close to $200,000 of taxpayers’ money thanks to an earmark in the 2009 transportation bill. Just this past year, a sinkhole swallowed eight of the museum’s cars.
This year’s transportation bill may prove a big temptation for even the most fiscally conservative members of Congress. In 2011, Michelle Bachmann, Tea Party favorite and self-avowed fiscal conservative, noted, “Advocating for transportation projects for one’s district, in my mind, does not equate to an earmark.” Well, actually, Rep. Bachmann, that is exactly what it equates to.
Responsible transportation funding is critical for the infrastructure of the country; bridges need to be repaired and roads need to be repaved. That’s why it’s vital that members of Congress spend Americans’ tax dollars on needed infrastructure and not wasteful pork projects. Sneaking earmarks into the transportation bill would be a wrong turn for federal lawmakers and the taxpayers they are supposed to represent.
David Williams is President of Taxpayers Protection Alliance.