Rep. Max Burns (R), a little-known freshman congressman, came away with a prodigious number of highway projects for his eastern Georgia district when the House passed a multibillion-dollar transportation bill in April.
To help Burns, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in next month's election, GOP leaders stuffed the bill with $52 million for bypasses, transportation corridors, overpasses and bike trails around Savannah, Augusta and Athens.
But as lawmakers left Washington this weekend, Burns's projects and hundreds more were in a legislative limbo, tantalizingly close to fruition but still not written into law.
Despite months of House-Senate negotiations, the giant transportation bill is still unfinished. The House version contains $11 billion worth of "high-priority projects," including federal aid for Illinois's "prairie parkway," a pet project of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), and money for a mile-long bridge connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to a sparsely populated island -- the handiwork of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).
Also unfinished are 11 annual appropriations bills crammed with projects tempting to constituents: billions of dollars for community health centers, urban sewer systems, rural colleges and local park systems.
"Just about everything that is excellent press-release fodder in an election year has been left on the table," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent budget watchdog group.
Congress was not passing up every opportunity to bring home the bacon. It was near final action on a bill that will funnel nearly $15 billion to businesses, communities, farmers and others suffering the ravages of hurricanes, droughts or floods. Final action was also near on a large tax bill dispensing favors to interests as far-ranging as Eskimo whalers and Carolina tobacco farmers.
But many members last week were plainly disappointed by the collapse of the transportation bill, bread-and-butter legislation for most lawmakers.
The giant measure has been held up by a nasty disagreement between the White House and GOP leaders over funding levels, and by maneuvering between states for a larger share of federal highway aid.
Congress could finish the bill when it returns for a brief post-election session in November. If the bill fails, the newly elected Congress will have to start over next year.
"I'm philosophical," said Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), a four-term congresswoman from Louisville facing a close election. Northup said she was still confident the $49.5 million earmarked for replacing Ohio River bridges would be forthcoming. "The leadership has understood since the first day I got here that this was the single most important investment that Louisville needs," she said.
In 2003, GOP and Democratic leaders assigned a number of freshman lawmakers to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in hopes their work on the pending six-year transportation reauthorization bill would help them consolidate their electoral holds.
GOP leaders showered money on those vulnerable lawmakers. Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), for instance, won $45 million worth of highway projects in the bill, including money for a new interchange at Highway 58 and Interstate 70, used by trucks serving the Coors brewery in Golden.
"Obviously, it's a disappointment that they didn't get it done," said Sean Murphy, Beauprez's chief of staff. "But we're optimistic that a six-year bill will be passed and that all of the projects the congressman secured will be in it."
But there are no guarantees. If Beauprez loses and Republicans keep control of the House, GOP leaders could decide to slash the allocation of earmarked funds for a district that would then be represented by a Democrat.
Democrats also could have to amend their news releases. In April, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.), facing a tight race, announced he had "successfully secured $45 million in high priority funding for southeast Texas." That optimism could be premature if a new Congress revises the earmarks.
In the hotly contested battle to represent Texas's 32nd Congressional District, both candidates have claimed credit for securing highway funds this year to replace two bridges over the Trinity River in Dallas, a top transportation priority for the city.
Rep. Martin Frost (D), whose district was eliminated in a statewide redistricting, is trying to unseat the current congressman from the 32nd District, Rep. Pete Sessions (R). In an interview last week, Frost acknowledged that Sessions had earmarked part of his allotment in the highway bill to the bridge project, but Frost said he had earmarked more.
Frost blamed White House intransigence on spending levels for delaying final action.
"It reminds me of what happened when Jimmy Carter fought Congress on water projects," he said. "Bush has caused the problem here. This is the single most important job-creation bill before Congress."