Monday, April 24, 2006

Son of the Bridge to Nowhere

The New York Times
Son of the Bridge to Nowhere

It was only last month that the Senate staged a breast-beating debate about the need to control the rampant pork-spending abuse of earmarks — boondoggle appropriations tucked into vital legislation with little public scrutiny. Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, orated on the side of the angels in calling for reform. Well, the angels have lost another player. As the Senate returns from recess it will confront the year's prize porker blithely trotted out by Senator Lott — a $700 million earmark to relocate a Gulf Coast rail line, which was just rebuilt, post-Katrina, at a cost of $250 million.

Invoked in the name of public safety, the project is actually a transparent attempt to tap already scarce hurricane reconstruction funds so the rail bed can be replaced by a touristy "beach boulevard" long sought by Mississippi to aid the casino industry and coastal developers. The railroad relocation dwarfs the $223 million "bridge to nowhere" proposed for the Alaska outback, the giveaway that brought all the vows for reform from Congress.

Even worse, Senator Lott and his fellow Mississippi Republican, Thad Cochran, are attaching this frivolous add-on to a bill that is supposed to be used to pay for emergencies — specifically the war in Iraq and hurricane reconstruction.

Senator Lott angrily resents any description of his pet project as a right of way to the slot machines. He insists the rail line needs higher ground and his constituents better protection. But it seems clear the twin traumas of Iraq and Katrina are being used as cover. Economic development is a fine goal for the Gulf Coast, but it deserves careful consideration, not a devious rush to the pork barrel.

This earmark is particularly objectionable considering that Senator Lott, as a principal in the recent ethics debate, helped produce the half-hearted swipe at the problem that the Senate passed as a supposed fix for earmarking. Now Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has made total disclosure of all earmarks a cause, plans to challenge the railroad money when the $107 billion Iraq spending bill comes to the floor. His colleagues should seize this second chance to take a truly credible stand against pork, while protecting Katrina funds for the real needs of reconstruction.