What's more helpful than a useless bridge? An attention span

Posted: Jan 12, 2006 12:01 AM

This year the Cubs will win the World Series. Or, maybe not. But one thing's for sure -- if the North Siders do win in 2006, as my own White Sox did last year, it won't be a triumph gained simply in October. While baseball's champion is crowned in the fall, winning a World Series requires teamwork throughout the year.

It begins before the season starts. The front office must find skilled players for every position and a manager who can persuade all those players to work as a team. Once the squad takes the field, a win in April counts just as much as one in September, so the players have to play hard every game.

And so it should be in politics.

Election winners are chosen in November, but voters ought to pay attention all year round. Still, many Americans, "don't focus until very late," as political commentator Charles Cook put it in 2004, "until after the World Series is over." Unfortunately, this disconnect has consequences.

Consider the famous "bridges to nowhere." They demonstrate what can happen when voters get involved -- and what will happen when they don't.

Last year, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) slipped almost $500 million into a transportation bill to pay for a pair of bridges. Even worse, this money was an earmark -- instead of allowing the state of Alaska to spend money on projects it deemed worthy, the federal government would insist it build two bridges, one of which would connect the mainland to an island where only about 50 people lived.

Watchdog groups raised a ruckus about the bridges, and the spans deservedly became a national punch line. Voters were outraged -- and got involved. Under pressure from pundits, fellow senators and those angry voters, Stevens eventually backed down and eliminated the earmarks.

But, this being Washington, there's more to the story. Many of us hoped that the money would be redirected and spent on more important projects. Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) even brought a measure to the floor that would have used the money to rebuild highway bridges destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

But that proposal failed and, once the spotlight had moved on, so did the chance for fiscal responsibility.

The $500 million remained set aside for spending in Alaska, and last month Gov. Frank Murkowski (himself a former senator who knows how the game is played and which hand feeds him) announced that the state will proceed with both bridges. Federal taxpayers will be on the hook for much of the $915 million that the two bridges are expected to cost.

That's what happens when voters stop paying attention, even for a moment.

In the last year, lawmakers frequently exploited the fact that voters weren't involved. Senators used parliamentary maneuvers to duck out of voting on a measure that would have allowed oil drilling in part of the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, even though more than half the Senate favors such drilling. And a determined minority of liberal senators managed to filibuster several judicial nominations, again preventing up-or-down votes the nominees would have won.

In 1948, President Harry Truman campaigned against a "do-nothing Congress." Today's lawmakers often do nothing as a matter of policy, because they think they can get away with it. Voters have a chance to change that attitude this election year.

The entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate will be up for grabs, so politicians are certain to be focused on their craft. Likewise, Americans need to be focused on what our leaders are doing -- or not doing. On everything from tax cuts to energy policy, we can encourage our leaders to do the right things as long as we're willing to pay attention.

Let's surprise our elected leaders and keep an eye on them all year long. That way they'll be more likely to link politics to policy, and we'll all be winners in November -- no matter where the Cubs finish.