Retreating shamefaced

November 25, 2005

Alaska's Ted Stevens and Don Young don't pressure easily. The perennially gruff Mr. Stevens chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations committee, which writes the details of the federal budget. He wears a Tasmanian devil tie on days when final deals are being hammered out, and remembers when colleagues cross him.

Representative Young, a bearded, grizzly bear of a man, leads the House committee that shapes long-term plans for federal transportation spending. He, too, deals with his colleagues in a my-way-or-no-highway manner.

So it was something of a seismic event on Capitol Hill last week when the Alaskan pair agreed to drop $452 million in earmarked funds for two bridge projects - dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" and "Don Young's Way" - that became the symbols for out-of-control Republican pork barrel spending.

Of course, they didn't give up much. The money will still go to Alaska and can be spent on the same bridge projects if state officials so choose. The gesture would have been far more meaningful if the savings had been directed instead to New Orleans, where post-Katrina bridge construction is desperately needed.

Still, it was striking that the two retreated at all after initially throwing tantrums at the mere suggestion.

A key reason seems to be that in this instance, unlike most others, outraged citizens got a chance to register their protest in the months-long interlude between approval of the bridge projects and the vote on a separate money bill to provide the cash. Their letters, e-mails and phone calls had an impact usually not possible when news of such boondoggles gets out only after legislation becomes law.

Symbolic though their victory was, it's reassuring to know that if taxpayers raise as much of a fuss as they did over Alaska's bridges, even the mightiest porkers can be shamed.

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