- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

The bridge to nowhere brought attention to Capitol Hill’s pork-spending ways; Coconut Road may become the first earmark to be investigated by the Justice Department.

The Senate yesterday passed a measure to urge the Justice Department to investigate how a $10 million road project in Fort Myers, Fla., was inserted into a 2005 highway spending bill after it passed both houses of Congress

The action may be the first time that Congress has asked Justice to investigate the legality of a legislative earmark — a special project requested by an individual member of Congress inserted into a bill.

What we want is some type of investigation to see what went wrong, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who sponsored a measure to seek a Justice Department probe.

The Senate passed Mrs. Boxer’s amendment by a vote of 63-29. The measure is part of legislation to fix errors and make other modifications to the 2005 act, which passed 88-2.

Mrs. Boxer’s measure is nonbinding. But many Republicans say that asking the Justice Department to investigate legislation would violate the separation of federal powers.

We’ve just now set a precedent in the Senate that says if we ever have a problem with our rules that we can’t handle, we’re going to invite the Justice Department to come do it, said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and a longtime critic of earmarks.

A proposal by Mr. Coburn that called for a bicameral congressional committee to look into the earmark matter was defeated 49-43.

The earmark in question — one of thousands inserted into the 2005 measure that called for $286 billion in highway projects nationwide — initially set aside $10 million to extend a portion of Interstate 75 in southwestern Florida. But after the bill passed Congress and before it was signed by President Bush, the earmark was rewritten and the money redirected for the construction of an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road in Fort Myers, Fla.

Local government officials in Fort Myers formally never asked for money for the Coconut Road interchange and have refused to build it.

Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and then chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently said his staff made the change.

Some have accused Mr. Young of seeking the so-called Coconut Road earmark as a favor to a campaign contributor, who was involved in the I-75 construction project. But he has denied any connection between the earmark and his donors, and hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

Mr. Young is no stranger to pork barrel spending controversies. He and Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, tried to steer more than $200 million for the construction of an enormous bridge linking mainland Alaska to a sparsely populated island. The infamous bridge to no where earmark eventually was axed but not before it generated significant criticism and was held up as an example of egregious pork barrel spending.

The overall highway bill passed yesterday now must be approved by a House-Senate conference, where the House would need to agree to the proposal to ask Justice to investigate the Coconut Road matter.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said yesterday that she doesn’t think a Justice inquiry is necessary and that the matter instead should be investigated by the House ethics committee.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, added that while there are clearly problems in the mechanics of what happened with the legislation here, he said he doubted that Justice was the right place for the investigation.

Mr. Blunt said the Government Accountability Office — a nonpartisan auditing and investigative arm of Congress — or some branch of the government that the Congress controls would serve as a more appropriate investigator.

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