By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
President Bush said last week he doesn't think Congress should raise the gas tax to pay for new bridges until it does something first about all the gas tax money wasted on so-called "earmark" projects—projects that don't meet federal standards but get done anyway as political favors to Congress members' supporters back home. Makes sense.
But the president tried to blame earmarks on Democrats and liberals. Doesn't make sense.
Hey, Mr. President: Take a look at Dallas, the city you lived in before politics and the one you will probably put your presidential library in when you leave the White House. This place is one big, sloppy hog pen full of conservative Republicans with messy snouts deep in the earmark trough, led by the most hoggy of all choir directors, the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News, the city's only daily newspaper.
Talk about a culture of hypocrisy.
The very day the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi in Minneapolis, the Morning News published a pursed-lip Miss-Priss editorial that started out, "When it comes to Washington lawmakers policing themselves, even crackdowns have loopholes."
The editorial writers gave Congress backhanded praise because a recent reform bill seeks, in their words, to "stop hiding sponsorship of earmarked projects so budget-busting pork doesn't mysteriously drop into legislation." But then the writers added, "...we would have liked to see tougher measures against earmarking."
The Dallas Morning News editorial page comes out against earmarks? This is like a high-dollar hooker coming out for abstinence.
From its inception, the Trinity River project in Dallas has been almost entirely a creature of earmarks, and nobody has whored after those earmarks more sluttishly than the News. Every time a Congress member comes home with another earmark for the Trinity, the Morning News editorial writers leak saliva all over their page.
In October of 2006, the News endorsed Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson for re-election specifically because she had done such a great job bringing home earmark money for the Trinity River project. "From rallying Democratic support for repealing the Wright amendment to ensuring that Dallas received bridge money for the Trinity River project, her efforts have benefited North Texas," the News burbled.
Let's cut to the chase on this. Bridges like the one in Minnesota don't get fixed—maintenance is not done according to the rules, inspections aren't carried out, parts are not adequately tested—because the money for all of that gets sucked out of the system by the earmarks.
"Earmark" is really a broad term for all kinds of appropriations Congress makes to fund projects that ought to be illegal or at least un-doable under federal regulations. That happens to be a description that fits the entire Trinity River project to a T.
In October of 2000, Mitchell E. McDaniels Jr., director of the Bush White House Office of Management and Budget, sent a letter to Thomas White, secretary of the Army, telling him the OMB had found such serious errors in the Trinity River project that "The Administration believes that the Corps should not enter into a project cooperation agreement or begin any physical construction work on the authorized project until this and other concerns with this project are resolved."
McDaniels said the Army Corps of Engineers should cease work on the project because of three flaws: 1) a failure to look at a simpler, much cheaper fix that would have provided far superior flood protection to downtown Dallas; 2) a fiddling of the Corps' own rules and regulations for determining the economic benefits of the program; and 3) a failure to look at ways to solve downstream flooding, especially in the heavily polluted area of Cadillac Heights, by buying people out and moving them from harm's way instead of building an expensive new levee that will increase the threat of flooding to downtown Dallas.
None of those issues was ever addressed. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose husband was the bond attorney for the Trinity project bond issue, dismissed the criticisms as bureaucratic whining and then led a vigorous campaign by the Texas delegation to get the project funded with earmarks and other side-deal, tack-on, slip-in appropriations. Now the backers of the project just lie about all of those issues.
But look: You can't do this kind of thing without lying to the public. One of the biggest, fattest lies told about the Trinity project has been the story that all of the major freeway bridges across the Trinity River downtown are slated for replacement anyway so the cost of replacing them now is not really attributable to the Trinity River project.
Got to do it anyway. Those old bridges just got to go. Nothing to do with the Trinity River project. That's the story. It's a lie.
Right after the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota, a Texas Department of Transportation list of "structurally deficient" bridges leaked—a very rare occurrence. The same day it leaked, state Senator John Carona, Republican of Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, was all over the radio bitching because he couldn't get TxDOT to release the same list to him.
Tell me about it. I have wrangled with TxDOT for this list for years now. When they turned me down, they said it had something to do with proprietary bidding information. They told Carona they couldn't give him the list of bad bridges because terrorists might see it and find out which bridges would be easy to knock down.
Guess what we found out when the list of deficient bridges leaked after the Minnesota collapse? Of the three major freeway bridges the city wants to replace over the Trinity downtown, only one was on the list of deficient bridges, and that deficiency was something that could be fixed with a repair, not a replacement. So the story that all of them need to be replaced is a lie.
I called and e-mailed TxDOT many times this week for comment. Now they say they're too busy with requests for lists of falling-down bridges to reply to my request.
The lie here involves hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money. It's the kind of lie that killed those people in Minnesota. The bridges that should be replaced are not replaced, because people lie and say the money should be spent instead on something they want for themselves—like signature bridges in downtown Dallas.
Most people in Dallas probably do want to see the Trinity River project get done. But most people thought when they voted for it in 1998 that the project was about the parks and lakes that the project's boosters showed in TV ads. The local clan that owns The Dallas Morning News—the Decherd-Moroney families—want the other version, the one with a big nasty toll road up the middle of the park and new suspension bridges over the river to make room for the toll road, none of which anybody ever voted for.
That stuff—the toll road and the bridges—can't be paid for out of normal federal or state appropriations, because it fails to meet any of the standards set by Congress for legitimate transportation projects. The road won't reduce enough congestion downtown, and the bridges are totally unneeded.
Hence, the slippery work-around. The earmarks. Under the rules, members of Congress can dish out earmark money pretty much for whatever they like.
What gets me so badly about the Morning News editorial page on this topic is that I happen to know that they happen to know better. Here's the proof: Last September 20 the News declared in an editorial headline: "Long road to recovery Katrina doesn't have to sink us in debt."
The way to fix up New Orleans and the rest of the country, the editorial page suggested, was by cutting back on earmarks. The page even went on to say: "Several that are dear to Dallas' heart, such as funds for signature bridges across the Trinity River, should be included. This would be one more way Dallas can extend the right hand of fellowship to its neighbors."
Wow. So they did know the Trinity bridges were being built with earmarks. They did know that's why there isn't enough money for legitimate projects. And they do think it's wrong.
The very next day, on September 21, 2006, the same page retracted the editorial and apologized for having made any suggestion that Congress or anyone should re-examine the Trinity bridges: "It is now apparent to us that this was a poor example to cite," the skin-back editorial said. "They and the Trinity project will be a huge economic engine for the revitalization of downtown, which supplies the oxygen for much of the rest of North Texas. They are critical to resolving this area's transportation challenges and to enhancing our most important waterway. There are other ways Congress can find the money to pay for the catastrophe wrought by Katrina without deepening the federal debt or raising taxes."
I called Keven Ann Willey, the Morning News editorial page editor, after the second editorial appeared, because I know her a little. She said, "The publisher was out of town, frankly, and had not been aware of our thinking or our intent on this. When the publisher saw the editorial, he wasn't particularly happy with it, shall we say."
Look, I'm not exactly sure where this leaves us. I know it means you can't blame earmarks on Democrats. If there was ever a rich, ultra-conservative Republican hog-fest to talk about, it's the Trinity River project in Dallas.
But it doesn't mean Democrats don't do it too. Of course they do. I think it means we all do. I think it means if we really want to get a look at the people responsible for those deaths in Minnesota, we all need to go look in our mirrors.
Bush has got a mirror, right? Tell me he's got a mirror.