Rep. Young requests a few earmarks — 15 years after his ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ made earmarking taboo

Rep. Don Young on the campaign trail in 2018. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Congressman Don Young has compiled a list of roads and public buildings he’d like the U.S. House to include in the next round of spending bills. This used to be routine: Lawmakers would request specific projects for their districts every year, a practice called “earmarking.” 

But more than 15 years ago, Young and then-Sen. Ted Stevens ignited national outrage and effectively killed the whole practice of earmarking.

Now, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House are tiptoeing back to earmarks but with new rules — and they’ve been rebranded. Officially, House Democrats now call earmarks “community project funding requests.” Congressman Young has 23 on his list.

“I ask that applicants and communities keep in mind that while this is a solid first step, it is not a guarantee of a funding award,” he said in a statement accompanying his list.

He’d like:

  • $19 million for Cape Blossom Road in Kotzebue,
  • $19 million for a fire station in Kodiak,
  • $10 million for “Village within a city” — a housing project in Anchorage,
  • $9 million to rebuild Cowles Street in Fairbanks,
  • $2 million to rehab a campus building to enroll more nursing students in Bethel,

. . . and so on.

What’s not on Young’s list? One very large bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, where the city’s airport is.

Back in 2005, Young and Sen. Stevens tried to get $223 million for the bridge. Earmarking foes and fiscal conservatives hit the ceiling. They called it the “Bridge to Nowhere.” They emphasized that only about 50 people lived on Gravina.

“Think about that for a minute: A bridge longer than the Golden Gate for 50 people,” the late-Sen. Tom Coburn said in 2005. “It’s enough money to buy every one of the inhabitants their own — hundreds of speedboats. To cross any time they wanted! And leave the speedboat for somebody else to pick up. And to buy a new one the very next day. And still not spend this much money.”

RELATED: Earmarks: Congress Mulls Return of Practice that Enriched Alaska

Earmarking, critics said, led to terrible waste. The Ketchikan bridge was the prime example. Earmarks were derided as pork, a way for Congress members to curry favor with political supporters.

But earmarking fans don’t see it that way. The alternative — in practice since an effective ban was imposed in 2011 — is for Congress to send money to the agencies and let administration officials decide where to spend it. Young calls that an abdication of congressional responsibility.

“This decade-long ban on ‘earmarks’ served only to shift Congress’ rightful power to appropriate money to the Executive Branch, while denying needed funds to local organizations,” he said in a news release.

Also on the plus side, advocates like Young say earmarks can grease the gears of Congress. They give members of the minority party a reason to help pass bills. 

The new Democratic rules for earmarking say each request will be posted on a congressional website. Lawmakers have to certify no one in their family has a financial interest and the beneficiary can’t be a private company. Members of Congress can only request 10 projects apiece from the House Appropriations Committee. (Young’s 23 requests are split among that committee and the Transportation Committee.)

Though Young hasn’t requested an earmark for the Gravina Island bridge, he still thinks that aspiration, and the oft-proposed Knik Arm bridge for Anchorage, will become concrete eventually.

“As population grows, times change, you’ll see those bridges built, even if the state or private money will build it,” he said in an interview last month. “You know, if I had another 100 years to live, I’d raise the money now and build a bridge. As long as I had the right to take and charge for it, I’d be a billionaire before I was dead. But I’m not that young anymore.”

Young was one of only 106 House Republicans to request earmarks of the Appropriations Committee by the April 30 deadline. About half of Republican House members, along with one Democrat, passed up the opportunity to request projects for their districts, which suggests that earmarks still carry political stigma.