On the southernmost part of the Alaska Panhandle sits the island town of Ketchikan. While its permanent population is just over 8,000 residents, Ketchikan welcomes more than a million tourists each year. What makes Ketchikan unique compared to other Alaskan island towns is that it is not connected to an airport by road. If you want to fly in or out of Ketchikan — as more than 230,000 passengers do annually — you must ferry to nearby Gravina Island, where the Ketchikan International Airport resides.
There would be a bridge connecting the two islands today were it not for a misguided campaign to label the Gravina Island Bridge as a “bridge to nowhere” and subsequently ban congressional earmarks for similar projects.
Critics of earmarks inaccurately label the Gravina Island Bridge as “the bridge to nowhere” — not out of indifference, but due to a lack of information about the needs of the people who live there. So, it ought to be local people, like Ketchikan-born GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, that make the informed decisions about projects an area needs.
This right of local politicians to advocate for their communities was restored when Congress recently decided to allow earmark provisions in spending bills. Along with empowering local control over government programs, this will help Congress quell the zero-sum, political smackdown that is the federal budget process. It will do so by encouraging compromise and cease making every issue a partisan issue. Congress is not working the way it was intended, and it has not for a long time. Restoring the full power of the purse to Congress is one way it can be put back on track.
Earmarks have always been around in one form or another. When Congress ties its own hands by banning earmarks, projects in specific locations are still funded, just by the executive branch rather than the legislative. Without the ability to add specific spending provisions to bills, those bills become necessarily vague. So, when the bill passes and it becomes incumbent on the executive branch to implement it, there is enormous room for interpretation by unelected bureaucrats.
Some claim that executive spending is justified because it is based on merit, rather than politics. Political scientists dispute this claim, but it is still unconvincing when taken at its word. When presidents justify a project they have implemented, they are capable of shifting the blame to unelected, federal bureaucrats if the project is found to be a disaster. Whether the decision was based on politics or merit is irrelevant. Either way, they are able to take credit when the project is a success or shift blame when it fails. Members of Congress do not have this luxury. They must compromise with those they disagree and make difficult decisions.
Compromise is often misunderstood as the selling out of one’s principles for political expediency. If respect for the needs of our fellow citizens is one of our principles, however, then compromise with these fellow citizens does not come at the cost of our principles. When no compromises can be made and Congress is thrown into gridlock, then no one’s principles are being served at all.
Most often, principles that find the most traction in Congress are partisan principles. Few members of Congress today emphasize anything about their agenda that is outside of their respective party platform. One reason for this is simple: Without earmarks, rank partisanship is the only way members of Congress have to please potential voters. We should not be surprised by politicians who seem capable of nothing but throwing partisan red meat at their constituency.
Earmarks will allow members of Congress to work outside the narrow confines of partisanship and incentivize compromise. Members of Congress who would otherwise never vote together on anything will be allowed to build bridges, not just across rivers and seas, but between each other. By contrast, a politician unwilling or unable to build bridges outside his own party will do little to meet the actual needs of his voters.
The bridges we build must lead to some place important. Bridges that lead us to nowhere but cheap partisanship are not worth a dime.
Micah Safsten is a graduate student of political science at Utah State University. He has previously worked as a research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity and a legislative intern on Capitol Hill.