Bridge Politics
Sarah Palin stood against the Bridge to Nowhere. Why didn't Obama and Biden?


Phil Kerpen

Before Team Obama continues its attacks on Sarah Palin for at one point voicing some general support for the Bridge to Nowhere, the presidential hopeful has some explaining to do. Let the record show that Barack Obama himself voted for the bridge at least twice, as did his running mate Joe Biden. If Team Obama is to continue to point out that Palin was for the bridge before she was against it, they either must explain why Obama and Biden never denounced the project or, on the other hand, describe why they were in error for supporting it.

At the moment the Obama campaign is playing a dangerous game of gotcha, since the record shows both Obama and Biden to be solidly behind the most visible symbol of wasteful spending in Washington.

The earmark for the Bridge to Nowhere originally appeared in the now-infamous highway bill of 2005. That bill included $24 billion in pork-barrel earmarks and will end up costing taxpayers a reckless $286.5 billion over six years. It passed on a 91-4 vote in the U.S. Senate on July 29, 2005, with Sen. John McCain standing in opposition along with three other lonely voices for fiscal responsibility. Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden both voted for the bill and its bridge of ill repute.

The Senate got another chance to stop the bridge on October 20, 2005, when it voted on an amendment offered by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn that would have redirected the funds from the bridge to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina relief. By then the grassroots outrage against the bridge was beginning to take hold and there was a good amount of pressure on the Senate to adopt the amendment. That pressure came from both the right and the left, with liberal Markos Moulitsas at the DailyKos stoking the flames. “Honestly,” he wrote, “there’s no reason for any Democrat to vote against this amendment.”

But Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (presently under indictment on corruption charges) played hardball, ominously stating:

I come to warn the Senate, if you want a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate, pass this amendment. I stood here and watched Senator Allen teach the Senate lesson after lesson after something was done to Alabama that he didn’t like. I don’t threaten people; I promise people.

Unfortunately, most senators chose Ted Stevens over the taxpayers. The result was shameful: Coburn’s amendment got only 15 votes. John McCain missed that vote, although Obama and Biden both buckled to Stevens and voted against the amendment. Moulitsas commented afterward that “Those who voted against these amendments have zero credibility on issues of fiscal responsibility. Zero.”

About a month later the Senate Appropriations Committee removed the earmarking language for the bridge from that year’s transportation appropriations bill, in effect leaving funding for the bridge intact but allowing the state of Alaska to decide whether or not to proceed with the project. In an amendment sponsored by Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, the House passed strong language on June 7, 2006, that actually prohibited federal funds from being used on the bridge. The Senate, however, never took up the matter, and the ball was passed to Alaska.

Frank Murkowski, the governor of Alaska at that time, was clear about his intentions. He said through a spokesperson, “We don’t know what the next governor is going to do, but we believe it’s appropriate to move forward on the project. It’s something we’ve been trying to get moved forward for the last four years.”

Murkowski’s last budget included a $91 million down-payment on the bridge, the most available to him under state-federal funding formulas. This set the planning process in motion for the bridge and appeared to lock future Gov. Sarah Palin (who upended Murkowski in the Republican primary) into building the bridge.

A New York Times article on March 6, 2007, titled “Alaskan Bridge Projects Resist Earmarks Purge,” bemoaned the fact that the bridge would still likely be built because of Alaska pork-barrel politics. The Times apparently assumed that Palin would buckle under pressure from Sen. Stevens, just as Obama, Biden, and most of the U.S. Senate had done.  The Times wrote, pessimistically, that

Regardless of the ridicule about the bridges as a pork-barrel binge, there are political facts that have kept hope alive for those who believe the projects are necessary for Alaska to grow economically. To direct the federal financing to other projects, for example, would require action by Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, and the State Legislature. It would also mean undoing the work of the powerful Congressional delegation, led by Senator Ted Stevens.

The Times authors must have been surprised when Palin stood up to Stevens and pulled the plug on the bridge on September 20, 2007.

We at Americans for Prosperity — some of whom actually visited the proposed bridge site — celebrated. Taxpayers for Common Sense, the group that first discovered the earmark, declared “Ding dong, the bridge is dead,” and noted that “Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK), our new favorite Governor, pulled the plug on this project and committed to finding a more ‘fiscally responsible’ approach.”

So the facts are plain. When it mattered, Gov. Palin stood up to Sen. Stevens and dealt the Bridge to Nowhere its death blow. This is something the U.S. Congress and senators Obama and Biden failed to do on multiple occasions.

And while it’s true that John McCain, unlike his running mate, has always opposed pork-barrel earmarks, Sarah Palin, unlike Obama and Biden, did the right thing when it counted most and stopped an egregious example of earmark abuse. And now, of course, Palin has joined McCain in calling for an end to earmarks.

Isn’t it better to come around to the right position than to keep on being wrong?