Congressional Collapse

As investigators and engineers examine the I-35 bridge in Minnesota for clues about what caused it to collapse, officials in Washington have a moral obligation to conduct a similar review. We can honor the victims by asking: Are there structural flaws in our political system that allow tragedies like this to occur?

Unfortunately, this discussion has, so far, produced little more than partisan recriminations and knee-jerk demands for increased spending and gas taxes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was right to call the bridge collapse a “wake-up call” but it was intellectually dishonest for him to add that “since 9/11 we’ve taken our eye off the ball.”

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) also brought more heat than light to the debate by slamming President Bush’s threat to veto infrastructure bills that bust the budget. “The lack of investment in infrastructure is frightening,” Murray fumed, “This is what [Bush] is threatening to veto — investment in infrastructure for [roads] we go to work on every day.”

It is undeniable that official Washington has “taken its eye off the ball” with respect to bridge safety, and a host of other issues. Yet, the true structural flaw in our political system is not insufficient spending, but misplaced priorities.

No area better illustrates Congress’ misplaced priorities than pork-barrel spending. The Federal Highway Administration declared the bridge “structurally deficient” in 1990 and directly warned Minnesota officials. Yet, since 1990, Congress has show more devotion to pork-barrel spending than repair work.

The 1981 transportation contained only 10 earmarks. President Reagan vetoed a transportation bill in 1987 that contained 121 earmarks, saying, “I haven’t seen this much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.” Moving ahead to 2005, Congress passed a transportation bill that included an astonishing 6,371 earmarks, or ten percent of the bill’s total $286 billion cost. Unfortunately, President Bush refused to veto this bill, giving his tacit approval to Congress’ earmark spending binge.

Yet, no other episode demonstrated the structural flaws in our political process more than the Senate’s lopsided 82-15 vote in defense of the “Bridge to Nowhere” in 2005. The actual amendment I offered went beyond striking the bridge and challenged Congress’ approach to spending priorities. The amendment would have redirected funding from two dubious Alaska bridge projects — the Gravina “Bridge to Nowhere” and the Knik Arm Bridge — costing a combined $452 million to reconstruction of the Twin Spans Bridge in Louisiana that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

This vote is instructive because it was about much more than the bridges. Eighty-two Senators were not as interested in defending the bridges as much as their perceived right to pork. Congress’ refusal to make rationale decisions about competing priorities continues to be at the heart of the ongoing culture of corruption in Washington. What is disturbing in Congress today are not debates about competing priorities, but Congress’ refusal to acknowledge its own responsibility to set priorities.

In the area of transportation, congressional excuses for pork ring especially hollow. Members often claim that pork is a check and balance against administration bureaucrats who don’t understand the needs of a state or district. While serving as Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert (R-IL) echoed the attitude of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) when he argued that individual members know best where to place traffic lights in their district. This argument breaks down when the “faceless bureaucrats” tend to be local state department of transportation officials who know the transportation needs of a state far better than twenty-something staffers in Washington, D.C.

In practice, transportation earmarks often have more to do with enhancing a member of Congress’ political safety than the safety of those they represent. Members want the perceived political capital that comes from pork. Politicians hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies when they direct money to a new bridge, not when a bridge repair is complete. If congressional earmarking were practiced in the private sector it would be called skimming — a process by which a person takes money off the top for their own personal use. While some earmarks might be funded anyway if a more objective source directed the funding, the process itself is broken and often funds the wrong priorities at the expense of the right priorities.

We won’t know what caused the bridge in Minnesota to collapse for perhaps several weeks but the American people already know enough about the structural flaws in our political system to make changes. For instance, we know that substandard road conditions take the lives of more than 13,000 Americans every year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

What this means is that every year we lose four times as many Americans on our roads as we did on September 11. Every dollar that funds a low-priority bike path or transportation museum is a dollar that isn’t available for an urgent repair that might save someone’s son or daughter, or husband or wife. While no single public official or political party can be held responsible for such tragedies, everyone who tolerates business as usual shares responsibility.

I served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001 and wish I would have taken more dramatic steps to raise this issue.

In my memoir about my three-terms in the House, I discussed the opportunity cost of pork in the context of a debate I had with then-Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-PA) after I described the process of handing out transportation pork as bribery. I wrote:

Another objection I had to pork politics was that it jeopardized public safety … For instance, allocating $7 million to a transportation museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania, means $7 million will not be spent improving dangerous two-lane highways and crumbling bridges … Failing to allocate money to repair roads and bridges can and does endanger lives.

When the Senate reconvenes next month to consider spending bills that’s a lesson I’ll be sure to remember.