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If your ears have been burning lately, it might be because Ketchikan is part of the national discussion — once again.
Prompted by remarks from President Donald Trump this past week, America’s political class is talking about the possibility of reviving “earmarks.”
Once upon a time, the congressional budgeting process allowed individual lawmakers to insert provisions — earmarks — into federal legislation. These earmarks directed federal money to specific projects that would benefit a lawmaker’s home district and state.
As such, earmarks were, in part, a tool used in the strategic horsetrading that occurs in Congress to secure individual lawmakers’ support for legislation they might not have supported otherwise, as in, “you can get funding for your pet project if you support my bill.”
Some viewed earmarks as mostly wasteful pork-barrel spending. Others believed earmarks are part of Congress’ rightful control of the federal appropriations process.
So, what does this have to do with Ketchikan?
The earmarks system was in full effect during the mid 2000s when one particular Ketchikan project — for which Congress in 2005 had approved substantial federal earmark funding — caught national attention.
The project was a two-bridge link that would have spanned from Revillagigedo Island over the east channel of Tongass Narrows to Pennock Island and then across the west channel of Tongass Narrows to Gravina Island.
Building the link would have fulfilled a goal that many in the Ketchikan community had been working toward since at least the early 1970s when the Ketchikan International Airport was built on Gravina Island.
However, the project’s remote location resulted in the “bridge to nowhere” nickname that quickly spread across the country, and its estimated total cost of nearly $400 million was savaged as an egregious example of earmark pork-barrel spending.
“Suddenly earmarks went from an obscure Capitol Hill obsession to a public menace,” wrote Kevin Drum in Mother Jones this past year.
By September 2007, then-Gov.Sarah Palin, who had supported the Gravina Access project while running for governor, turned against the project while she was the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with Sen. John McCain. Palin that month announced that Alaska would not build the Gravina Access bridge. Palin moved a portion of the federal funding to other projects in the state, but allowed about $25 million to be spent on building the Gravina Island Highway that now extends south from the airport to a point near where the proposed bridge link would have made landfall on Gravina.
Although it wouldn’t be built, the “bridge to nowhere” remained Exhibit A in the congressional effort to ban earmarks that was achieved fully by 2011.
“An Alaskan bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan to its local airport and 50 island residents, dubbed the ‘bridge to nowhere,’ famously led to the 2011 ban on earmarks,” Dug Begley and Mihir Zaveri wrote in the Houston Chronicle this week.
“This preposterous earmark was used as the hook by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, to ban the practice of earmarking pork barrel projects,” wrote Forbes contributing writer Ralph Benko.
Since 2011, one would hear occasional nostalgia for earmarks from some quarters, but the topic didn’t resurface in earnest until this past week.
That’s when President Trump mentioned it to lawmakers during a meeting regarding immigration reform.
"You know, our system lends itself to not getting things done," Trump said, as quoted by The Washington Post. "And I hear so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.
"In the old days of earmarks," Trump continued, "you can say what you want about certain presidents and others, ... they went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was an earmark system. And maybe we should think about it."
The president’s comments — as many of them do — sparked a storm of opinion.
The opinions voiced by various officials and commentators are running mostly against earmarks. The rhetorical weapon of choice is often — you guessed it — Ketchikan’s bridge.
“Remember the infamous ‘Bridge to Nowhere?’” read the opening line of Alan Rappeport’s Jan. 11 story in the New York Times, which had the headline of “To Grease Wheels of Congress, Trump Suggests Bringing Back Pork.”
Jonathan S. Tobin’s “Return of the Ultimate Swamp Creature” critique of earmarks in the National Review places the bridge in the category of outrageous boondoggles.
“The list of egregious examples is long and includes funding for the infamous Alaskan ‘bridge to nowhere,’ Tobin wrote.
Another quote in a cutting editorial in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Revue noted that Republicans lost control of Congress when they ran a “congressional earmark factory.”
“That's because the stench from political pork — most notably, millions of dollars for Alaska's ‘bridge to nowhere’ (which ultimately went nowhere) — overpowered spending for deserving projects.”
Other writers mentioned the bridge along an actual earmark-related scandal.
“The bribery scandal that sent former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., to federal prison and funding for a $223 million ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ in Alaska helped set the stage for a Democratic takeover of the House in 2006,” wrote Mike DeBonis and Elise Viebeck in the Washington Post.
That same story quoted the founder of the Courage to Speak Foundation, which once relied on earmark funding to help steer youth away from drug abuse.
“We're not a Bridge to Nowhere," said Ginger Katz.
It continues to amaze us that those three words continue to be negative shorthand for all of the perceived ills of the earmark system — and that a Ketchikan circumstance can drive a national debate
The bridge still has its defenders. One of those is Alaska Rep. Don Young, who was quoted by Alaska Public Media on Wednesday as saying the project should have been built.
“There’s never been a bridge anywhere that had anything on the other side until it’s built,” Young said.
Beyond the bridge itself, Young remains one of the strongest proponents of earmarks.
“This to me is one of the crucial issues to this Congress, the next Congress and this House,” Young said Wednesday during a meeting of the House Rules Committee, according to the Alaska Public Media story.
Without earmarks, according to Young, Congress gives spending authority to the executive branch and allows bureaucrats rather than elected representatives the ability to decide where funding goes.
“I call these projects of constituents’ Interests, not earmarks, because these projects come from our people,” Young told the committee. “As long as Congress stays within the parameters of the budget, this doesn’t add to the deficit. We direct the spending instead of the bureaucracy.”
According to information from Young’s office, the representative described his view of the Alaska congressional district.
“My district is a little different from other districts because it’s made up of many, many small communities,” Young said. “Under the current system, we appropriate money to the agencies which in turn goes to our states and in doing so, our rural communities are often forgotten. This is a crucial issue to this Congress. ... Until this is solved, we are no longer the Congress of the people, we are just people. We have the responsibility to respond to our constituents’ needs — that’s our job as congressmen.”
We agree with Rep. Young in that elected officials know their district and constituents. As our representatives, the congressional delegation should have an ability to direct appropriate federal funds toward meeting local needs.
As such it’s reasonable to support an earmark program that can accomplish this within constraints that reduce the temptations.
Ketchikan supported the bridge project back in the day as a hard link to the community’s future. The current visceral reaction to “bridge to nowhere” talk is a reminder that — fair or no — the “optics” of that project were quite negative outside of the First City.
It’s worth noting that some of the federal funding was kept secure over time for use with a project to improve access between Revillagigedo and Gravina islands. A project is set to commence soon, and, while not a hard link like a bridge, it will improve the ferry link and reliability.
As that project gets underway, it’s a little bizarre to be hearing the “bridge to nowhere” phrase rumble back into the public eye.
Gravina continues to be an opportunity for expansion of the community. It’s definitely “somewhere” for us.