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Old Don Young Had a Farm

An accomplished porker tries to buy himself the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee.

12:00 AM, Sep 21, 2005 • By SCOTT GLABE
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"DON YOUNG'S WAY" is a $231 million bridge to be built in Anchorage. Don Young's "way" is to use his position as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to bring home as many federal dollars as possible for his home state. For instance, the highway bill passed at the end of July netted over $1 billion in special projects for Alaska. That's $1,448 in pork for every man, woman, and child in Alaska.

Young's eponymous bridge isn't even the most egregious bit of largesse. That honor goes to another bridge, which, for $223 million will connect Ketchikan, population 8,000, with Gravina Island, population 50. The Gravina Island Bridge, which is slated to be taller than the Brooklyn Bridge, will be a towering monument to unnecessity; the small island is already served by ferries, one of which departs every half hour.

Young claims the bridge will facilitate Ketchikan's growth by providing ground access to the airport on Gravina Island, a rationale that is sure to be mentioned in a "documentary about infrastructure that demonstrates advancements in Alaska, the last frontier," to which the highway bill allots another $3 million. Perhaps the documentary will also explain how an airport with fewer than 10 flights a day can facilitate such growth, or why the government simply doesn't purchase a Lear Jet for every inhabitant of Gravina Island--which, as Citizens Against Government Waste has noted, would be cheaper than the bridge.

Amongst this plethora of outrages, however, Don Young's Way remains emblematic of all that can go wrong with the appropriations process. In the words of Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, the chairman's "naming this boondoggle after himself is a perfect way to symbolize the waste, graft, and parochial politics in this transportation bill." These problems extend far beyond the borders of Alaska. The highway bill contained some 6,371 earmarks that will cost over $24 billion. Roughly $1 out of every $11 in the legislation will be spent on pet projects instead of building roads and reducing congestion.

Taxpayer groups were outraged, and six of them wrote to President Bush asking him to veto the bill. "President Reagan," they note, "vetoed a transportation bill in 1987 because there were 152 such earmarks." Reagan's frustration was justified--the 1987 bill contained 15 times more pork projects than its 1982 predecessor--but seems almost quaint today. Congress overrode Reagan's veto, and earmarking has grown exponentially ever since.

Nonetheless, President Bush signed the bill into law on August 10, even though its $286.5 billion price tag exceeded the ceiling to which he had pledged to hold Congress by $2.5 billion (or by $11 billion, depending on whether you believe that a transparently bogus recission will come to pass on the very last day the law is in effect). It's little wonder: Only 12 congressmen of either party in either house had voted against the highway bill, and only one--stalwart fiscal conservative Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona--didn't receive any pork for his district or state.

THE HIGHWAY BILL is only the worst outbreak of a larger epidemic. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, this year Congress included 13,997 pork projects in various bills--a number sure to grow as appropriations season wraps up. This figure marks a 1,400 percent increase over 1996, when there were "just" 958 earmarks. Special projects do more than just waste money; they also undermine the budget process. As Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the Cato Institute, wrote recently: "The projects are usually inserted into bills by individual members, have not been requested by the president, and skirt normal procedures for competitive bidding or expert review." Moreover, he notes, by funding endeavors that should be in the domain of state and local government or the markets, "earmarks are one aspect of [a] broader disregard of federalism."

This "culture of fiscal irresponsibility," as Sen. Tom Coburn labeled it in a recent book, will not be corrected overnight. (Case in point: Coburn himself voted for the highway bill.) But matters would surely have worsened if Don Young had gotten his way again and become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

By agreement with the president, Congress has pledged not to include any earmarks in Department of Homeland Security authorizations. And so far, legislators have stuck to their word, but not for want of trying by would-be porkers. "Last year the Senate subcommittee received over 1,100 requests for earmarks, and the House subcommittee received nearly 2,000," according to a report by James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation.