Long road ahead for earmark cure

Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, the proposed $398 million bridge connecting Gravina Island, population 50, with Ketchikan Island? The infamous project is officially dead, thanks to a decision announced last week by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Palin said officials “will continue to look for options for Ketchikan to allow better access to the island,” but they are no longer concentrating “on a $400 million bridge.”

The proposal became a national icon of wasteful federal spending in 2005, when Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, sponsored an earmark providing federal funding for it. Earmarks are provisions inserted — usually anonymously — by congressmen ordering spending on a favored project without competitive bidding or public accountability for the results. Senators removed the Bridge to Nowhere earmark but allowed Alaska officials to keep the money for whatever transportation projects they preferred. Stevens, who threatened to leave the Senate if the earmark was removed, is now the focus of an FBI political corruption probe.

Another positive development on the earmark front is EarmarkWatch.org, a new Web site jointly developed by Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Sunlight Foundation. The site provides citizens with needed online tools and expert assistance in researching and exposing earmarks in appropriations bills that become public, either by official act or by others.

In early testing, Sunlight researchers used the site to find that 17 of 27 recipients of defense earmarks sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., were also among his campaign contributors. The contributors collectively gave Moran nearly $100,000 for his re-election campaign, while he showered them with earmarks worth $24 million. That’s quite a return on an investment in a congressman.

But progress on the earmark front often comes unevenly, with one step forward being negated by several steps backward. Consider these recent developments:

» Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., say senators can only challenge earmarks that are included in appropriations bills. This means senators cannot challenge earmarks that are “air-dropped” anonymously into a bill during a Senate-House conference.

» House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, blocked consideration of House Minority Leader John Boehner’s proposal allowing record votes on all earmarks, whether they are contained in appropriations, authorization or tax bills. Democratic leaders want to allow votes only on earmarks contained in appropriations bills. Boehner, R-Ohio, is now circulating a discharge petition that would force a floor vote if 218 of his House colleagues sign it.

How Boehner fares in getting those 218 signatures will be an excellent measure of how serious the House of Representatives is about genuine earmark reform. Frankly, we’re not holding our editorial breath.

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