FRED WOLFERMAN: All the Earmarks Of a Boondoggle
There is a lot of talk lately about earmarks, those bundles of money congresspersons send home to their districts to fund boondoggles, all only for the cost of voting to allow other congresspersons to do the same.
Earmarks may be wasteful and frivolous, but the congresspersons believe they buy votes. They are nothing new.
The granddaddy of all earmarks was a gift from then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill to the citizens of Boston: The Big Dig. It's the gift that just keeps giving.
Boston planners first began thinking about the Big Dig, or, as it is less colorfully known, the Central Artery/ Tunnel Project, in the 1970s, as traffic in Boston became ever more snarled. By the time it hit Congress in 1985, it was budgeted at $2.5 billion. O'Neill arm-twisted it into the federal budget, and work began.
Twenty-one years and $14.5 billion later, the last phase was opened. Of that, a mere $8.5 billion came from the feds. That is only slightly more than the cost of the Civil War on both sides. OK, OK, before inflation.
Just a few months later, a chunk (a 6,000-pound chunk) of ceiling fell from one of the tunnels, killing a hapless newlywed in a car below. Now the tunnel is closed indefinitely, doubtless snarling traffic to a degree undreamed of in the '70s, and the lawsuits have begun.
The Big Dig has had a lot of problems from the outset: too many politicians, too many contractors, too many favors to spread around, too much money. It is a classic example of how government fails to be efficient at management.
From the beginning, there were incidents of substandard workmanship, lack of oversight, and rumors of bribes and kickbacks, all of which will now be investigated, but which were ignored at the time.
We already know that by 2001, one of the tunnels had "thousands of leaks," caused by poor excavation techniques. In 2004, another tunnel suffered a "major leak" and had to be closed for repairs. In 2005, The Massachusetts State Police found evidence that a concrete contractor had submitted false reports as to the quality of the concrete used, and in 2006, six current or former employees were arrested for falsifying these records. After that, Gov. Romney returned a $3,900 contribution from the contractor.
Now that a motorist has been killed (four workmen were killed during construction), somebody has noticed all this. Tom Reilly, the outgoing attorney general of Massachusetts, is suing all the contractors he can find for anything from breach of contract to gross negligence.
In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction ironies, the general contractor, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, is represented by O'Neill and Associates, a lobbying firm headed by, you guessed it, Thomas P. O'Neill III, Tip's son. The Big Dig became a family business.
Of course, the motorist's family is suing everybody too, but that will pale in comparison to the state actions.
In the past 20 years, contractors, lobbyists and lawyers have made lots of money, politicians have received lots of donations, Bostonians have received lots of promises. Now, more contractors will make more money repairing things, more lobbyists and lawyers will make more money prosecuting and defending various parties, and Bostonians will be offered more promises. It's also a pretty good bet the politicians will get some more donations. Who says earmarks aren't a good thing?
Nancy Pelosi, the next speaker of the House, has promised to balance the budget and reduce earmarks. We shall see. She has ladled plenty of money into San Francisco (her district) in the past, though nothing on the order of the Big Dig. Still, one can hope events in Boston get plenty of publicity; it might have a calming effect on the big spenders in Washington.
We can all learn a lesson from this. We might want to think twice before allowing Congress to lob money at us. It comes with too many strings and not enough supervision. It is too little valued. As satirist P.J. O'Rourke so indelicately put it: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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