Pork by Any Other Name . . .

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Remember the "Bridge to Nowhere"?

Last fall, after House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) earmarked $223 million to link the remote town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the more remote island of Gravina (population 50), the Bridge to Nowhere became a national symbol of congressional porkmania, lampooned by Leno, Letterman and Limbaugh. It was the most brazen of the record-breaking 6,300-plus earmarks inserted by individual members of Congress into the record-breaking $286 billion transportation bill. Even Parade magazine, not known for its muckraking, featured the project as a poster child for government waste.

Young, a 33-year House veteran, defiantly boasted that he had stuffed the bill "like a turkey." And Stevens, a 37-year senator, furiously threatened to resign if Congress shifted money away from Gravina and another bridge to nowhere near Anchorage -- a bridge named Don Young's Way, near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. But the projects became such an embarrassment to Republicans that the chairmen agreed to withdraw both earmarks. Budget hawks, green activists and clean-government types hailed the defeat of the bridges as a victory for fiscal sanity.

Except that the bridges weren't defeated.

The Republican-controlled Congress still gave Alaska the $452 million it had requested for the two bridges, merely removing the earmark directing where the state should spend the money. Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R), who was once Stevens's junior colleague in the Senate, intends to spend that money on the bridges.

In Washington, pork has become synonymous with congressional earmarks; in fact, most media outlets -- including The Washington Post -- define it as such. So does the new "Pig Book," which was released this month by Citizens Against Government Waste and catalogs 375 of last year's goofiest earmarks, such as the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative and the Sparta Teapot Museum. But outside Washington, most Americans think of pork as wasteful spending. They don't really care whether it's earmarked. And they shouldn't.

Anti-pork activists cited the stuffed-like-a-turkey transportation bill generally -- and its bridges to nowhere specifically -- as evidence of the need for "earmark reforms," and they managed to get a few modest ones into the otherwise toothless lobbying bill that is currently floundering in the House. But they've fallen into the classic Beltway trap of demanding procedural solutions to substantive problems. Congressional earmarks have nearly quadrupled in a decade, and many of them are outrageous. But earmarks don't produce pork.

Porkers produce pork.

Murkowski's well-connected family -- his daughter Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is now Stevens's junior colleague in the Senate -- just happens to own land on Gravina. Young's family just happens to own land that will benefit from Don Young's Way. But the bridges to nowhere, the turkey of a transportation bill and the earmark explosion are all symptoms of much deeper problems: a Congress that essentially functions as a pork dispenser, a Congress that rarely seems to debate anything but the division of the spoils of government, a Congress that is essentially run Don Young's Way.

Politicians have always cared about pork, but in the past, federal transportation bills at least tried to address major transportation problems. In the 1950s, the interstate highway system was created to bolster national security as well as individual mobility in the automotive age. In 1991, Congress passed a transportation bill with funding for buses, trains and bicycle paths as well as traditional highways, a response to car-dependent trends in American culture and federal policies.

By 2005, the interstate highway system was complete, but America still faced a variety of transportation crises. Traffic was awful and getting worse, idling sport-utility vehicles were contributing to global warming, mass-transit systems were crumbling, and nearly one-third of the nation's urban bridges were rated structurally deficient or obsolete. But the debate over the transportation bill avoided those pressing issues. It was all about who got what, and how much.

Young initially proposed a $375 billion bill called the Transportation Equity Act-a Legacy for Users (producing the acronym TEA-LU -- Young's wife is named Lu), but President Bush threatened to veto any measure exceeding $256 billion. And since the bill is funded by gasoline taxes, "donor" states that guzzled the most gas fought for funding formulas assuring them the most funding.

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