I have seen the place where the bridge to nowhere was supposed to go. I asked my friend, who lives in Ketchikan, about it.
“Do you want to see a fight in here?” he asked inside a store in downtown Ketchikan. “I could start one pretty easily with that.”
Earmarks — provisions of the federal budget for specific projects — get our knickers in a twist because one man’s manure is another man’s ice cream. The bridge to nowhere, still often described as a connection to a sparsely populated island, would have connected Ketchikan with its — airport. It now requires a ferry ride to get there. In a town you can only get to by plane or boat, that’s a big deal. Imagine if you had to take the ferry to Vashon to get to the airport. You’d be clamoring for a bridge. (And before you ask why they put the airport on an island, understand that Ketchikan is surrounded by steep hills. Flat land – any land – is at a premium.)
So it’s bemusing to hear people now complain that the federal stimulus package has little congressional mandate as to how it will be spent. Well, that’s in part because there are no earmarks in the bill.
Earmarks were in fact less than 1 percent of the federal budget in 2008. Congress could use a germaneness rule, so that amendments to bills, including earmarks, have to relate to the original bill. That would prevent some shenanigans. But even though a lot of earmarks get through Congress, it’s difficult to argue that earmarks are what has driven up the federal deficit.
The complaining about lack of congressional oversight in the stimulus package underscores the absurdity of the post-modern America polity: We brag about our freedom, democracy, and superior form of government, and yet relatively few Americans have any faith in it or understand how it works. (And if we’re the greatest nation on earth, why do we have to keep telling everybody?)
My own students will frequently say they know nothing about government and pay little attention to it, but they know that most people in government are corrupt. How they know this is never made clear. My response often is, if so many government officials were truly on the take, they’d dress better.
Some of this automatic distrust stems from nearly 40 years of candidates campaigning against government, a gift of politics in general and the Republicans in particular. For far too long, the typical campaign rhetoric has been “government is the problem; elect me and I’ll destroy government.” The first part is yelled; the second part barely whispered.
You heard it loud and clear from the right throughout the 2008 campaign — the system is broken. Exactly how it’s broken, nobody really says, but apparently we’re going to hell on a hot rail unless we elect a bunch of people who hate government to somehow want to fix it. That’s like saying we could fix education if we hired a bunch of people who hate school.
Anyhow, back to the earmarks business. The assumption now is that Congress, which is apparently less corrupt than the people below them, needs to be watching every move by the state and local officials who will spend the stimulus dollars since, without extreme oversight, locals will no doubt spend the money on junkets, jelly beans, and support for the underground gay communist devil-worshipping conspiracy. These critics often are, of course, the same people who say the federal government is too powerful and more power should be given to the states because they are closer to the people and know what they want. Except, apparently, when it comes to stimulus money.
Oversight is one of the most important jobs Congress does, and one of the least sexy, so you don’t hear much about it. The lack of earmarks or anything like them won’t stop congressional committees from seeing what happened to the money, and at least raising a ruckus if there is waste.
But for the most part, the officials charged with dispensing stimulus dollars will do the best they can with what they have, because they are in fact closer to the people and will catch hell if they don’t do their jobs. That is our system of government: federalism, which divides and shares power between the states and the national government. Amazingly, it still works. It’s not perfect; it never will be. But it lumps along with remarkable resiliency.
Ending earmarks is a cosmetic fix of no particular importance. Indeed, members of Congress manage to sometimes give grants to foundations of dubious value, for example, and those members should have a little more character than that. But on the whole, real bridges to nowhere seem to be rare. And the stimulus package isn’t likely to pay for too many of them.
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