Remember the infamous Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere," the poster child for wasteful pork barrel congressional spending? Well, don't look now but Montana has its very own copycat debacle. Even worse, both of our Democratic senators almost broke their arms patting themselves on the back over it earlier this year. Now, in the fullness of time, they look like fools—and Montanans have every reason to be disgusted.
This story, like so many other sad tales, begins with the sweeping paranoia that gripped the nation after the 9/11 attacks. Fueled by fear and fanned by the corruption of Washington, D.C., billions of dollars were suddenly earmarked for the nation's borders. A giant, environmentally and socially destructive wall on the southern border led the boondoggle projects, but none other than our own Sen. Jon Tester began lamenting what he called our "porous northern border."
For most Montanans, the border with Canada has never been and likely will never be seen as a threat. After all, the U.S. and Canada share the longest border on the continent, and it has been our ally in world wars as well as regional conflicts. It's also our largest trading partner and our closest, largest and most secure source of oil. Treating Canada as some variant of Pakistan's border is, in a word, insulting to both Montanans and our Canadian friends.
But in D.C., you take your money where you can find it and Sens. Tester and Baucus decided there was pork aplenty in the border spending spree. So why not get a little of that for good old Montana, eh? And that's exactly what they did. One of Tester's first acts as a senator was to request a "security review" of Montana's border with Canada from the Department of Homeland Security.
Then, back in April of this year, both senators lauded the tens of millions of dollars they'd appropriated for expanding personnel, installing security improvements—such as launching drones to spy on Americans and Canadians while they work or recreate along the border area—and what they called "upgrading" border stations. One of those stations, Whitetail, sits in a remote part of northeastern Montana and was scheduled for a stunning $15 million dollar makeover. To put that number in perspective, one has only to recall that this station gets about five crossings a day and no commercial traffic. Some security risk.
Given the bizarre state of national politics these days, it was none other than Montana's lone congressional representative, Republican Denny Rehberg, who suddenly got religion on fiscal responsibility and took Tester and Baucus to task over the pork barrel appropriation. It would be funny, were it not so tragic, to have Rehberg, who voted in lockstep with the Bush cabal to push the national debt into the stratosphere, suddenly concerned about a few million dollars being spent in his home state—however needless the end product.
But lo and behold, Rehberg wasn't the only one to cry "foul" and finally force Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to release the agency's review of just how it determined where we had security risks and how much money should be spent to address them. As it turned out, Republican criticism combined with in-fighting for the pork by fellow Dems eventually revealed the ugly truth—which was basically that Napolitano's agency had virtually no methodology for prioritizing the expenditures. It was, as usual, merely a matter of political suckage with the pork flowing to the biggest suckees. Embarrassing, but nothing out of the ordinary for Congress and the federal government, despite the pledge of "change."
Hoping to pull some fur over their exposed tails after the investigation, Tester and Baucus harrumphed about the expenditure and, in a token gesture to fiscal responsibility, reduced the planned outlay from $15 million to about $8.5 million for this five-people-a-day crossing.
Then, last week, as reported by the Associated Press, the Canadians decided to close the road on their side of the Whitetail border crossing. Ironically, they did so after a government study to determine the efficiency of maintaining numerous crossings. Since there are two other crossings within 17 and 34 miles, the Canadians decided the minimal traffic didn't merit the expense.
Meanwhile, on this side of the border, $1.3 million has already been "received or spent" on the border station. Pork barrel projects, by definition, are supposed to put the pork in the hometown barrel. In this instance, however, the money is going to a Colorado contracting firm that says: "We're progressing as we were in the beginning."
Ah yes, the beginning. Where it ends is unknown, but where it started is not only well known, but equally well despised.
So America borrows money from China to build needless "security" systems on our border for non-used crossings. That anyone, Democrat, Republican or independent could possibly defend such waste is shameful. And now that the cards are on the table and the façade is mercilessly ripped away, even Tester has decided to hold some "town meetings" up on the Hi-Line and asked the feds to temporarily halt construction.
But it's too late, Jon Boy—the pork is out of the barrel, so to speak, and running all over the front pages.
Here are Tester's own words, from his campaign debate with Conrad Burns in 2006: "Quite frankly, I don't support earmarks, period. I'm not for earmarks because they don't pass public scrutiny with the transparency that our government and forefathers set up." Judge for yourselves, Montanans, whether that particular campaign promise has been kept.
It's a sad state of affairs when a minority Republican has to remind a majority Democrat that he's lauding millions in expenditures on useless projects that do nothing but throw future generations deeper into debt. And unfortunately for Democrats, it is exactly this kind of example that may well put their electoral chances—like the Whitetail border crossing—on the Road to Nowhere.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.