Democrats are trying to cast some House Republican freshmen as helping to preserve spending for two notorious Alaskan “bridges to nowhere” after a mostly party-line vote on Wednesday defeating a motion on a bill to extend the nation’s highway and transit programs through September 30.
“It’s unbelievable that Rep. Sean Duffy would vote to keep the poster child for Republican out-of-control government spending alive and kicking,” said Jesse Ferguson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in one version of a release targeting about 50 members, including Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, for their votes on the motion.
“That’s absurd,” responded Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Those earmarks were stripped out in 2005.”
But that’s not the whole story, insist Democrats, led by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., in this effort on the House floor on Wednesday.
At issue was a Democratic motion to recommit the surface transportation bill extension, which itself was ultimately passed in bipartisan fashion, 421-4.
But before the overall bill was passed, Polis offered a motion to recommit that would rescind remaining funds—which Democrats peg at about $183 million—for the planning, design, and construction of the Gravina Island and Knik Arm Crossing bridges in Alaska.
Those were the two bridge projects that became synonymous with government waste after Congress in 2005 provided a total of $454 million to the state of Alaska for them through several earmarks in the surface transportation bill.
The Gravina Island bridge, the DCCC noted, is a $304 million project serving an island of 50 people, and the Knik Arm Crossing project would create a 1.6-mile bridge and connecting roads at a cost of almost $1.6 billion.
Despite claims that the “Bridges to Nowhere” earmarks were eliminated amid the public outcry, Polis and other Democrats complained that the state of Alaska has still spent more than $71 million of federal funds to proceed with these bridge projects and accompanying access roads over the past six years.
They say the designation for the earmarks changed in 2006 but that the money for the bridges was included in funding for various infrastructure projects in Alaska, which chose to use or reserve the money for these two bridges specifically.
As a result, Polis offered his motion to recommit that would rescind all remaining funds—approximately $183 million—provided for the bridges.
“Mr. Speaker, it looks like too little has changed,” Polis said on the House floor. “Unless this amendment passes, the Republicans once again will become a party lost on the bridge to nowhere.”
In a response on the floor, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., accused Polis of “again trying to mislead the entire House on this particular motion to recommit.”
“It is smoke and mirrors,” said Mica, though he did not elaborate as he urged the motion’s defeat. A Mica spokesman said Wednesday night he needed to get more details before responding to Democrats’ claims. The motion was then defeated 246-181, with all Republicans voting against the amendment, joined by seven Democrats.
Afterward, Polis issued a statement, asking, “Will continuing projects like these solve our deficit problems or responsibly reduce spending?”
Added Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “If Republicans believe their own hype about fiscal discipline, then they should vote to cut the deficit by eliminating these Bridges to Nowhere.”
There was no immediate response from Duffy’s office.
This article appears in the March 3, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.