On November 15, advocates of a fiscally responsible federal budget thought they had won an important battle in the war against wasteful spending when Senator Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska) announced that he would strike earmarks for two bridges in Alaska.
Slated to receive nearly $500 billion in taxpayer money, the bridge projects had become symbols of congressional profligacy and were the subjects of a wave of national ridicule that undermined Congress’s credibility on fiscal matters. The $315 million bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan with Gravina Island was popularly dubbed the “Bridge to Nowhere” when it was reported that only 50 people lived on the island and that the Governor’s family owned land there.
Senator Steven’s amendment struck the earmarks from the law, but it did not cut the nearly $500 million slated to fund them. Nonetheless, fiscal conservatives viewed the earmarks’ elimination as an important first win against the increasingly prevalent practice of earmarking federal spending for specific projects that benefit influential constituents.
The next step should have been to redirect the funding for the bridges and for all other such earmarked projects to true national priorities such as hurricane relief. Under the amended law, however, the money will go to the government of Alaska to use for transportation projects that meet its own priorities, not Washington’s.
Even that was wishful thinking. Governor Frank Murkowski released his budget proposal on December 15, and it includes funding for the two bridges that a month earlier the state’s senior senator had purported to eliminate.
To be sure, devolving decision-making to state and local governments is important because it allows those closest to the issues to set priorities, but there is no guarantee either that the states will exhibit especially great wisdom or, as may be the case here, independence from Washington meddling. In this case, the governor has elected to burden his state’s budget and federal taxpayers with the $915 million that the two bridges are expected to cost.
It is certain that these projects are a waste of federal taxpayers’ money, but perhaps even more damaging is the appearance of insincerity and cynicism that this episode exposes.
The public has grown increasingly skeptical about the integrity of the legislative process, and the appearance of a bait-and-switch on the bridges will not help Congress to restore its credibility. All in all, what looked to be a good first step towards responsible fiscal policy turned out to be much less than promised.