The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Lawmakers Choose Pork Over Bridge Safety

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The I-35 Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which resulted in the deaths of 13 people, dominated several news cycles and gave politicians the kind of somber photo ops they can rarely resist.  Some, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), called for an increase in the federal gas tax to pay for the long-standing unmet need for bridge repair.  Congress went back to business as usual, earmarking billions of tax dollars for frivolous projects in the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried to strip just a few of the most egregious items from the bill and was rebuffed by his colleagues.  One amendment would have prohibited the funding of lawmakers’ parochial projects until “all structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges have been repaired, with limited exceptions.”  That went down by a vote of 82-14.  His amendment to strike millions of dollars in funding for bike paths in favor of using the funds for road and bridge repair was also rejected by a vote of 80-18.

In a closely-related development, the Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) released its final report on the adverse impact of congressional earmarks on the department’s budget process for fiscal year 2006.  The vast majority of DOT spending is subject to statutorily-mandated selection and review, merit-based bidding, formula-based eligibility requirements, and at least the potential for oversight by the agency.  Congressional earmarks represent the antithesis of this system.

Highway and airport fund planning involves DOT, governors, federal and state budget officials, university experts, and transportation consultants, who spend considerable time and effort to prioritize their needs.  The IG reports that of the 7,760 earmarked projects contained in the three largest Transportation Department programs in FY 2006, worth more than $8 billion, 7,724 (or 99 percent) circumvented DOT’s and the states’ review processes.  The impact of such earmarking reduces funding for states’ core transportation programs, funds lower priority projects over higher priority projects, and finance projects that would otherwise be ineligible for funding.

The DOT IG report provides more evidence of what anti-pork watchdogs have known for years.  Earmarks corrupt the executive branch and state level budgeting processes and waste billions of additional taxpayer dollars beyond the simple price tag of the project itself.  Viewed through the lens of the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota, Congress’s mindless, secretive overspending is even more odious.

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