Somewhere, Alaska

John Boehner of Ohio. Mike Castle of Delaware. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, Arizona. Butch Otter, Idaho. Ron Paul, Texas. Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin. Mac Thornberry, Texas. And C.W. "Bill" Young, Florida. This slender cohort of current and former U.S. representatives, along with nine others who did not vote, can rest easy this campaign season, knowing that whatever else is thrown at them, it won't include this: Voted for the bridge to nowhere.

Writing and editing Truth Squad posts this month, as well as sometimes making the mistake of watching the 6-8 p.m. hours of local television, when campaign ads abound, it's obvious how much that poster child of "wasteful earmark spending" still has a hold on the Republican voter's imagination, at least the ones that candidates are gunning for this season. This single earmark, the never-built link between Ketchikan, Alaska and its airport, was singled out of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, otherwise known as SAFETEA-LU, shortly after its passage in 2005, and has been used ever since to beat those who voted for it like a drum.

Rick Santorum, whose position on social issues can make him resemble a medieval pope, has been repeatedly accused of being just another big-spending Washington politician, and has had to defend his vote for SAFETEA-LU, and its cursed Alaskan bridge, repeatedly on the campaign trail. In Iowa, he defended earmarks in general, and the bridge in particular, thusly:

“People say that I voted for 'The Bridge to Nowhere.' I did. I went with the federalist argument, which is, 'Who am I in Pennsylvania to tell Alaska what their highway priorities should be?' You had a city that was separated from its airport, and of course in Alaska you have to travel by air, and you had to have a ferry. There were times when they couldn’t get across.”

That sounds suspiciously like common sense. If you like, you can find the entire text of the bill here, and using the miracle of control-F, find many earmarks you probably have used or driven on yourself, including work on I-196 in west Michigan, I-94 near Jackson, and elsewhere.

The conservative argument against earmarks condemns them all as pork, and would maintain that the money doled out from Washington should stay in places like Alaska and Michigan without detouring through the nation's capital. Fair enough. But as long as we all agree that the interstate highway system is a good thing, at least some transportation spending should be determined there, in the interests of the entire country.

Some time ago, I spent a year at the University of Michigan, in a fellowship program with a number of journalists from all over the world. One, an Englishman who worked for the BBC, rented a car and traveled around the Midwest for a few days. He expressed bafflement that drivers' licenses were issued at the state level; wouldn't this be a job for the federal government? Isn't driving, and its associated rules and regulations, something Americans can all agree on? Oh, Andy, we told him, you don't know the half of it. Ever traveled on a New England roundabout? Executed a Michigan left?

It's a very big country. And your nowhere is someone else's somewhere.

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