Members of Congress are notorious for earmarking transportation money for projects in their home states and districts. They can then tout the earmarks to their constituents as proof of their prowess on Capitol Hill.
But a dirty little secret of earmarks -- pejoratively called "pork" by opponents of the practice -- is that, sometimes, the money never gets spent, or the projects never get done.
The money, however, ends up sitting around, trapped in federal coffers because "earmarked funds must be used only on the specifically designated project," Assistant Inspector General Kurt Hyde explained in a November 30 memorandum to the FHWA. Earmarked funds cannot be spent on other projects without an OK from Congress.
Hyde said that data from FHWA's financial management system shows that "significant" amounts of earmarked but unspent funds are in limbo, some designated as long ago as 1983. And that's just in the five Gulf Coast states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas -- that are the target of the IG's initial review.
Spokesman David Barnes said the review is limited to the Gulf Coast states because the IG's office is trying to balance its resources among the various reviews its staff has under way.
Once the reviews are completed, Congress must decide whether to redirect any funds toward rebuilding roads and bridges damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
A related controversy brewed in the Senate earlier this fall when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to get his colleagues to strike down several hundred million dollars in funding for two bridges earmarked for Alaska and to steer the money to hurricane relief instead.
The Senate rejected Coburn after Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, argued that Alaska's earmarks should not be singled out for elimination. Congressional negotiators later knocked out the earmarks -- but still sent the money for them to Alaska.