Stretchers at the ready

Posted: Oct 23, 2005 12:05 AM

It would be nice if we could blame it all on muddle.

It would be nice if government grows because everything's so complex that muddle begets muddle, and governments balloon — "evolve" — out of the booming, buzzing confusion of any mind set out to grasp it. It would let so many people off the hook. We could say, "forgive them, for they know not what they do."

But that's not quite the case.

Recently, a clash first between Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and then a clash between Ted Stevens of Alaska and that very same, persistant Oklahoman, brought the Senate to a rare moment of clarity, where it became obvious for all to see why government grows.

It grows because our politicians want it to grow.

Senator Coburn had this idea. He wanted to bring some semblance of balance to federal spending, so he took the occasion of increased spending for disaster relief to urge cutting some recently approved pork-barrel spending. Why not just delete a few earmarked spending items? He cited a sculpture garden in Washington state, an art museum in Nebraska, and a Rhode Island animal shelter as, er, good candidates for local, as opposed to federal, spending.

That's when Patty Murray spoke up. She fiercely defended the dominant congressional ideology that many wrongs make everything right. She made it quite clear that were her sculpture park pork singled out, she'd attack other "earmarked" items. Those marked for other senators.

Now, before I go on to the consequences of Ms. Murray's threat, I'd like to digress a moment. No one has ever fully explained to me this business about "earmarks." When I earmark a passage in a book, I fold over a small corner of the page. It flaps over like a dog's ear, and is thus duly marked.

But that turns out not to be the term's meaning. As Merriam-Webster puts it, an earmark is "a mark of identification on the ear of an animal."

How agricultural! It's gratifying to learn that the Senate's euphemism for "pork" is, well, a pig-raising-related concept.

And, of course, the Senate is in the business of raising pork. It's what senators trade — with special interests, the people who fund their re-election campaigns. So no single-minded career politician would allow his own earmarked livestock to be gored. Hence farmer Murray's threat.

Which was very effective. Senator Coburn's proposal was voted down, 86 to 13. "The miracle," noted the Wall Street Journal, "is he got 13."

A crushing defeat. But did that stop Coburn? Nope. Later in that same day he suggested that the Senate take the hundreds of millions set aside for the notorious Alaskan "bridges to nowhere" and give it, instead, to repair a bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, in Louisiana. The Twin Spans Bridge, after all, had been damaged by Katrina, and was used by an awful lot of commuters. One of the Alaska bridges would replace a seven-minute ferry ride for the 50 or so residents of Gravina Island, the other goes from Anchorage to uninhabited wetlands. Seems a reasonable sacrifice, no?

After Coburn proposed this amendment, Senator Stevens took the floor. Stevens angrily told his freshman colleague that, if the Senate killed his bridges, he would resign and "be taken out of here on a stretcher." The 81-year-old, 36-year veteran of the Senate, well-esconced as chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said that the mere suggestion was "an offense, a threat to every person in my state."

Well, Stevens must have meant every person "who matters" in his state. That is, Stevens.

After the Senate regained composure — after an alleged "halt" gave the august body a few moments of terrified clarity — it voted against Coburn's measure, 82 to 15. Though it was good to see "Coburn's Dozen" raise in number by two, this was most definitely another ringing defeat for Coburn.

And for America. And common sense. The Alaska bridges in question, and the other items identified by Coburn, are all wastes of federal dollars. Of taxpayer dollars. If the respective states can't fund them, then they shouldn't be funded.

The message being sent, clearly, is that Senators aren't "supposed" to challenge other members' notions of the worthiness of state projects. Just as clearly, that must change.

In voting against Coburn, the Senate voted, quite deliberately, for ever-expanding government growth and against prioritizing the nation's projects.

Apparently, as they've threatened, we won't get any progress until men like Stevens and women like Murray are indeed carried out of the Senate on stretchers. Or, less drastically, their near-eternal terms are cut short by term limits.

Our politicians may want, on some level, to balance budgets and even cut spending. But, in every instance where it counts, the overwhelming majority of them support unlimited government growth. Why? Because that's the nature of the system. Because that's what benefits them. Because once in office they begin to see themselves not as our fellow citizens but as the government.

What a muddle, what a mess. Still, we should blame it on them — though not, of course, on Coburn's Dozen.