Narrow Agenda Has Policy, Political Benefits

Posted April 14, 2008 at 6:46pm

For a bill that passed committee last year with no discussion, Senate Democrats sure are making a lot of hay out of this week’s debate on the Highway Technical Corrections Act.

Touting the legislation as a “jobs creation” measure that is desperately needed in tough economic times, Democrats are aiming to blunt criticism from Senate Republicans that it is a thinly veiled attempt to accelerate and increase payments for Congressional earmarks. [IMGCAP(1)]

On the one hand, Democrats say, the legislation should not be controversial because it’s simply correcting drafting errors in the mammoth 2005 highway bill that have led to “unintended consequences.” On the other hand, they’re psyched to be able to say that by rejiggering transportation funds they will create jobs this summer on transportation construction projects across the country.

“This wasn’t meant to be ‘stimulus’ per se, but we find ourselves in a situation where the economy is losing jobs,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “By making these technical corrections, we will be in fact creating jobs and stimulating the economy.”

Of course, accelerated infrastructure spending continues to be one of the Democrats’ primary proposals for reinvigorating the economy since road construction jobs cannot be outsourced. To bolster that point, Democrats pointed to a Transportation Department estimate that every $1 billion of federal spending on infrastructure projects creates 47,500 jobs.

But some Republicans aren’t buying the line that a bunch of technical corrections are going to stimulate the economy.

“It sounds like the Democrat strategy is to label every bill a jobs bill to quiet opposition and to lard it up with as much pork as possible,” said one Senate GOP aide. “Can we at least wait for the bills to take effect before we go with a third or fourth stimulus?”

But this bill might cut both ways, at least for some of the formerly well-connected denizens of Alaska.

For instance, the state’s all-GOP delegation of Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens is using the bill to redirect a $3 million earmark for ferry infrastructure at the Seward Marine Center to a new roads and infrastructure earmark for the city of Seward.

The marine center, operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is one of the primary partners of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. The center — along with Stevens, his son and former chief of staff — is under investigation by the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies for allegedly misusing millions of federal dollars in earmarks.

The bill also won’t be much benefit to some of Alaska’s fish population. According to the technical corrections package, the trio of Alaskan lawmakers have struck a clause requiring road improvement projects conducted under a $5 million earmark to “improve fish habitat.”

That’s not to say the Alaska delegation is eliminating everything in the bill that might benefit their families, current and former aides or business associates or themselves. For instance, the bill will expand the scope of a $5 million earmark for the “Ferry to Nowhere” between Anchorage and Port MacKenzie to include construction of facilities for the multimillion-dollar boat. The bill also modifies language directing a $1 million earmark for planning of roads in Point MacKenzie — the sparsely unpopulated town across the Knik Arm from Anchorage — to the construction of roads in the area.

With land near Anchorage getting snapped up by the region’s population growth, real estate developers have said landowners around the isolated Port MacKenzie outpost could reap huge financial benefits from the ferry project and associated subsidized development efforts. Those property owners include Young’s son-in-law, Stevens’ former chief of staff and a host of other current and former aides and business associates of one or more of the delegation.

But Alaskans aren’t the only ones trying to use the bill to eliminate the stench of controversy. Senate Democrats and Republicans are teaming up on an amendment to investigate a a $10 million earmark for Coconut Road in Fort Meyers, Fla., that Young apparently inserted into the 2005 highway bill after it passed both chambers but before the president signed it.

Florida Sens. Mel Martinez (R) and Bill Nelson (D) aim to set up a bipartisan, bicameral committee to look into the earmark. Local officials opposed the funding, which was sought by a local developer who raised campaign funds for Young.

Conservative Republicans also are planning to offer amendments to highlight what they see as egregious earmarks in the bill.

Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), for example, wants to strike a provision in the bill that would help fund a 269-mile bullet train from Las Vegas to Anaheim, Calif. DeMint aide Wesley Denton said the original authorization was for a 40-mile stretch of the magnetic levitation train from Las Vegas to Primm, Nev.

“This is not a technical correction,” Denton said. “This is a huge, new earmark.”