Spending Bills Still Stuffed With Earmarks

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

Twice in the past two years, Alaska lawmakers lost congressional earmarks to build two "bridges to nowhere" costing hundreds of millions of dollars after Congress was embarrassed by public complaints over the pet projects hidden in annual spending bills.

This year, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, who are Alaska Republicans, found another way to move cash to their state: Stevens secured more than $20 million for an "expeditionary craft" that will connect Anchorage with the windblown rural peninsula of Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Now what Alaska has, budget watchdogs contend, is a ferry to nowhere.

"Earmarks are a bipartisan affliction," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group that tracks the projects. "It would take leadership in both parties -- and a lot more shame -- to ever rein them in."

The $555 billion annual "omnibus" spending bill approved by Congress this week and the $459 billion defense bill passed last month collectively contain more than 11,000 earmarks, despite Democrats' vow to use their first year in the majority to slash the number of such pet projects.

The earmark tally did come down, budget watchdogs said, but the audacity of the requests is little reduced. Among routine requests for roads and dams, Taxpayers for Common Sense found $100,000 for signage in Los Angeles's fashion district, $9 million for "rural domestic preparedness" in Kentucky and $250,000 for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Wash.

President Bush yesterday threatened to cancel thousands of the special projects, saying he has ordered White House budget director Jim Nussle to determine the extent of the president's authority to respond to what he called "wasteful spending" in the mammoth appropriations bill. Aides said that could include simply disregarding earmarks that were not included in binding legislative language.

Earmarks are a crucial way that lawmakers channel money back home for such projects as community centers and water-treatment plants. Most members of Congress boast to constituents of their success in winning funding and say they know better than federal agencies what their districts need. A spokesman for Young said the Alaska ferry, for example, would drastically shorten the commute from the borough to Anchorage.

But over decades, earmarks have become magnets for some questionable spending requests, and the sheer number has given them a bad name.

The practice reached a high-water mark in 2005, the year of the first "bridge to nowhere" project, which would have linked the town of Ketchikan, on a southeastern Alaska island, to its airport on a nearby island.

Nussle, a former representative from Iowa who chaired the House Budget Committee, said the earmark explosion badly dented Republicans' and Bush's reputations among fiscal conservatives.

"When I was budget chairman . . . we always held the top line. But what got us in trouble, I feel, are the earmarks," Nussle said in an interview. "People would come up to me at a town meeting, [and] they all want to know: 'How did you have money for this bridge or this rain forest or this cowgirl museum?' "

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