Back in 1987, Congress presented President Reagan with its transportation funding bill – and he vetoed it. Lawmakers, he said, had inserted too many bonus projects for their home districts – 152 of them.
Last year's highway bill designated 6,371 such projects, including the now-famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.
Congress overrode that Reagan veto in 1987, and it hasn't looked back since. Almost 20 years later, the practice of targeting spending to specific projects – known inside the Beltway as earmarks – is ingrained in Capitol Hill culture.
This year, though, earmarks are embroiled in controversy surrounding legislators' relationships with lobbyists. Several lawmakers have forsworn earmarks and want their colleagues to do the same.
The hue and cry notwithstanding, the expansion of the pork barrel is startling: Earmarks added to spending bills totaled $3.1 billion in 1991, compared with a record $29.3 billion in fiscal year 2006, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
With today's examination of an Alaskan "bridge to nowhere," the Monitor launches an up-close look at several projects – all tagged with the "pork" label – contained in this year's federal budget.
In an unusual move, funding for the "bridges to nowhere" was put to a vote last October; 82 senators opted to keep the $453 million rather than send the money to Gulf Coast relief. But eventually, bashing in the news media and ridicule on late-night comedy shows took a toll, and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) dropped the earmarks.