(Washingtonpost.com) Twice in the past two years, Alaska lawmakers were forced to abandon plans to build two "bridges to nowhere" costing hundreds of millions of dollars after Congress was embarrassed by public complaints over earmarks hidden in annual spending bills.
This year, Alaska Republicans Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens found another way to move cash to their state: Stevens secured more than $20 million for an "expeditionary craft" that will connect Anchorage with the windblown rural peninsula of Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Now what Alaska has, budget watchdogs contend, is a ferry to nowhere.
"Earmarks are a bipartisan affliction," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group that tracks the projects. "It would take leadership in both parties -- and a lot more shame -- to ever rein them in."
The $555 billion annual "omnibus" spending bill approved by Congress this week and the $459 billion defense bill passed last month collectively contain more than 11,000 earmarks, despite Democrats' vow to use their first year in the majority to slash the number of such pet projects.
The earmark tally did come down, budget watchdogs said, but the audacity of the requests is little reduced. Among routine requests for roads and dams, Taxpayers for Common Sense found $100,000 for signage in Los Angeles's fashion district, $9 million for "rural domestic preparedness" in Kentucky and $250,000 for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Wash.
President Bush yesterday threatened to cancel thousands of the special projects, saying he has ordered White House budget director Jim Nussle to determine the extent of the president's authority to respond to what he called "wasteful spending" in the mammoth appropriations bill. Aides said that could include simply disregarding earmarks that were not included in binding legislative language.
Earmarks are a crucial way that lawmakers channel money back home for projects from community centers to water-treatment plants. Most members of Congress boast to constituents of their success in winning funding and say they know better than federal agencies what their districts need. A spokesman for Young said the Alaska ferry, for example, would drastically shorten the commute from the borough to Anchorage.
But over decades, earmarks have become magnets for some questionable spending requests, and the sheer number has given them a bad name.
The practice reached a high-water mark in 2005, the year of the first "bridge to nowhere" project, which would have linked the town of Ketchikan, on a southeastern Alaska island, to its airport on a nearby island.
Nussle, a former representative from Iowa who chaired the House Budget Committee, said the earmark explosion badly dented Republicans' and Bush's reputations among fiscal conservatives.
"When I was budget chairman . . . we always held the top line. But what got us in trouble, I feel, are the earmarks," Nussle said in an interview. "People would come up to me at a town meeting, [and] they all want to know: 'How did you have money for this bridge or this rain forest or this cowgirl museum?' "
All told, this year's spending bills contain about 25 percent fewer earmarks than the 2006 appropriations, according to a tally by Citizens Against Government Waste. But this year, lawmakers generally did not count earmarks in bills composed almost solely of regional projects, such as the annual military construction bill.
Trimming earmarks by changing their definition "is like saying you're meeting your weight-loss goal by not counting your backside," Ellis said. "They've taken a step in the right direction, but if all we did was recalibrate the baseline and earmarks start their growth again, we haven't ccomplished much."
The House required lawmakers for the first time to sign their names to earmarks, identify the beneficiaries and locations, and certify that neither they nor their immediate families had a financial stake in the spending. But Democrats' good intentions came undone in the Senate, which failed to trim earmarks as severely and tinkered with the language of the rules, limiting disclosure to only the authors' names, Ellis said.
There are few signs so far that disclosure rules have dissuaded lawmakers from sponsoring earmarks, watchdogs said. They have only made them easier to trace.
The Taxpayers for Common Sense audit turned up, for example, that a handful of lawmakers continued this year to sponsor earmarks worth more than $10 million for ProLogic Inc., a West Virginia company under federal investigation for its role in receiving earmarked money.
The omnibus provides $126,000 for the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio, a favorite cause of the earmark's sponsor, Rep. Ralph Regula (R), whose wife founded the museum and whose daughter runs it. Regula has requested hundreds of thousands of federal dollars for the museum since 1991, when he persuaded the National Park Service to pay $1.1 million for its headquarters -- the girlhood home of Ida Saxton McKinley, the 25th first lady.
"Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have teamed up to waste taxpayer dollars on silly pork projects and egotistical projects named after themselves," said Brian Riedl, senior budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
The Alaska ferry project is one of the more expensive earmarks. Billed in Stevens's version of the legislation as an "expeditionary craft" to be used by the military, it is considered a passenger ferry by Young, according to his spokeswoman. It would follow roughly the same path as the second of the abandoned "bridges to nowhere." Stevens put the earmark that will fund the ferry into the defense appropriations bill, which Bush signed last month.
Young's son-in-law owns land in Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a remote region two hours by car from Anchorage. A ferry would shorten that commute to 15 minutes, making the borough valuable for housing development.
Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for Young, confirmed the family connection to the land. "Many Alaskans own land there," she said.
"They've been working on this since the mid-1990s," she said of the ferry project. "It's bipartisan, well wanted and needed. It's a bridge to growth and development."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.