Earmarks Gone, Wasteful Federal Spending Remains

Published January 1, 2006

Hurricane Katrina developed in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico before slamming into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama last August 29–but two major symbols of Katrina’s fiscal storm sit more than 3,000 miles away at the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Alaska.

Alaska is where the now-infamous “Bridges to Nowhere” are to be located. Those two proposed bridges–in Ketchikan and Anchorage, Alaska–received funding of $454 million in the 2005 federal transportation bill. They have been ridiculed coast-to-coast by liberals and conservatives alike as bridges to nowhere because they would link areas with almost no one in them.

The Ketchikan bridge will link the city with Gravina Island, home to 50 people and the local airport, with a span nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. A seven-minute ferry ride now takes people back and forth. The Anchorage bridge will go to the little-used port of Knik Arm, beyond which lies sheer wilderness.

The two bridges have become emblematic of the wasteful spending many analysts say should be cut to provide hurricane relief without expanding federal spending or adding to the deficit. The federal government already has approved more than $62 billion to rebuild New Orleans and other areas devastated by Katrina, and billions more are likely to be approved.

Lawmakers Stand by Bridges

Alaska’s state and federal lawmakers appear committed to spending the money on the bridges.

“I think the best thing to do is proceed with both projects as planned,” Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) told the Anchorage Daily News for a November 18 article. The newspaper also quoted state Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) as saying, “I don’t feel it is in the best interests of the state to … let hysterical politics around the country drive our capital projects.”

Earmarks Go, Money Stays

Some Republican congressmen and senators want to offset the unexpected disaster relief by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget. The “earmarks”–commonly known as pork-barrel spending–for the Alaska bridges were removed from the transportation bill in November, after Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) angrily shouted to fellow lawmakers that he would resign if the funding were removed. But the state of Alaska gets to keep the money and use it on any transportation project it pleases, including the bridges to nowhere.

The bridges were among more than 6,300 earmarks totaling $24 billion in the transportation bill, most of which remain in effect despite critics’ complaints.

The Republican Study Committee, led by Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), had appeared to be winning over political leaders toward the idea of offsetting hurricane relief by cutting spending elsewhere. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced in September she would give up $70 million of federal funds earmarked for her district.

Cutters’ Efforts Turned Back

In October, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment to the 2006 Transportation Appropriations Bill that would have redirected $75 million of the $454 million set aside for Alaska’s Bridges to Nowhere to rebuilding the I-10 bridge between New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana. The measure failed, by a vote of 82-15.

In November, the seven-member “Fiscal Watch Team” of Coburn and Sens. John Ensign (R-NV), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), and John Sununu (R- NH) proposed legislation that would reduce federal spending by $70 billion to $115 billion over two years. The plan includes eliminating pork from the highway bill, postponing the Medicare prescription drug program, and creating a commission to review government agencies and programs for possible cuts or elimination. DeMint press secretary Wesley Denton said he did not know if the bill would get out of the Homeland Security committee.

These are signs the budget-cutting ear is going deaf, said Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute.

Offsets Off Table

“There are a lot of moving targets” in the effort to pass budget reconciliation and appropriations measures,” Slivinski said. “Things tend to get lost in the shuffle. That seems be what’s happening with the offset ideas. There is little discussion about offsets now as compared to a week or two ago. There’s virtually no discussion, really. In fact, the discussion has gone in the direction of how we can lump more spending onto the White House’s $17 billion supplemental [spending proposal].”

Slivinski noted Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) in early December proposed spending an additional $17 billion, doubling the president’s request.

“The worst part is that he said we aren’t going to reallocate spending,” Slivinski said. “This is new spending. He wants to throw most of it into the Community Development Block Grant program. This money is going to revitalize shopping malls in the Midwest, not the ostensible reason of helping hurricane victims.”

A bill by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) that would allow states to disregard earmark instructions and spend federal transportation funds as they see fit “is a simple proposal that brilliantly accomplishes what is confronting us in this debate,” said Alison Acosta Fraser, director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Flake’s bill (HR 4071) also would rescind 10 percent of the federal transportation funding approved in 2005 for deficit reduction and to offset hurricane recovery spending. Fraser said she does not hold out strong hope the bill will pass.

Funding Museums, Not Levees

Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said, “Although I think it’s a crude option, across-the-board cuts may be the only option. It’s difficult to get agreement on things that affect specific interests. I don’t like across-the-board cuts. I would prefer to target bad programs, but across-the-board cuts may be the only solution, because in that way you don’t target someone over someone else.”

Ashdown said a simple freeze of discretionary spending would save $45 billion, but he added he is not optimistic that will happen. He noted an energy and water bill presented in December includes $13 million for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers museum.

“They took that money from levees,” Ashdown said, noting New Orleans flooded during the Katrina storm because of failed levees under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.