How Not to Spend $453 Million

Listening to the radio on my commute last week I heard a perfect example of the opposite of Lean government. I’m always bothered by waste but this was truly disturbing.

In the highway bill signed this summer there is what is known as “the Bridge to Nowhere” connecting Alaska’s Gravina Island (population less than 50) to Ketchikan (population 8,000). This bridge will be almost as long as the Golden Gate and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge. Some estimates put this and another bridge at between $450 to over a billion dollars of pork. This was the handiwork of public servants Don Young and Ted Stevens of Alaska. When I first heard this in the news this summer, feeling cynical or perhaps powerless, I shook my head sadly and moved on with life.

Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is a foe of government waste, a Lean Government Champion, if you like. Last week Senator Coburn tried to block $453 million for the Bridge to Nowhere. He wanted to redirect this money to rebuilding the I-10 Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain which was severely damaged in Hurricane Katrina. The estimates for repair of the bridge in Louisiana run in the $600 million range.

“I believe that we should spend taxpayer dollars where they are most needed,” Coburn wrote to his fellow senators asking for support. Coburn said “With the nation’s debt ballooning, with the war in Iraq and all the hurricane damage, the country has to set priorities.” Maybe the folks in Alaska do need that bridge. But is their need greater than that of the people of New Orleans? Senator Coburn’s action seems like a sensible, rational, even compassionate thing to do. Yet Senator Coburn’s amendment failed, 82-15, to block this government waste.

Why?

Senator Ted Stevens, the veteran Alaska Republican could be heard on the radio losing his cool, “This amendment is an offense to me” and “I don’t kid people” Stevens hollered “if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state . . . I will resign from this body.” Other things were said by Senator Stevens that sounded like veiled threats. Too bad our senators didn’t give him a reason to resign that day.

It doesn’t take much digging to find out that this is par for the course for Senator Ted Stevens. The Citizens Against Government Waste called for Senator Stevens to resign in 2003 due to concerns that he was making a “concerted attempt to accumulate a personal fortune by wielding his extraordinary power in the Senate” as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

In China when an official is found guilty of corruption they are swiftly executed. I am by no means advocating putting a bullet in the head of politicians who serve themselves rather than the people who elected them. However, the near complete lack of accountability in our political process needs to change. In America, the citizens are responsible for doing this.
One small sign of hope is found at the end of the Alaska Daily News article on October 21, 2005:

“Alaskans have filled the newspapers with letters, signed petitions, and sent letters to Congress offering to sacrifice the less-than-necessary bridges,” Ferry, who works for the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, said in a written statement after the vote. “It’s unfortunate that the Senators from Alaska failed to reflect the compassion and common sense shown by Alaskans since Hurricane Katrina hit.”
And there are small things we can do towards Lean government. In kaizen, big changes can come from a series of small persistent changes. The biggest change is the change in our minds. The first step is to take some type of action and test its effectiveness, and then try again and again. There is the Hurricane Katrina No Pork Pledge that you can ask your congressman to sign.

Essentially it says that they won’t sneak in any pork along with the appropriations for hurricane relief. Diluting relief and reconstruction spending with pork would not only not be Lean government, it would be immoral.

Here is the short list of people who have signed it. If you care about Lean government, e-mail your congressman.