By Michael McNutt
Washington lawmakers bear responsibility for the poor state of America's bridges, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn said Wednesday. He said they've curried favor back home with legislative earmarks instead of approving money for transportation maintenance and repairs.
The question is: Where's the responsibility in the government that we have when you use bills like the transportation bill to do something other than transportation when we have a massive infrastructure need?" said Coburn, R-Muskogee. "I think Congress has taken its eye off the ball."
The last six-year highway and transit bill that passed in 2005 totaled $286 billion, of which $65 billion was for earmarks, Coburn told about 100 people attending a meeting of the Edmond Rotary Club. One earmark in the bill, for $130 million, was designated to help replace the Crosstown Expressway in Oklahoma City.
Coburn said $5 billion in the bill was for museums and other projects that had nothing to do with roads or bridges.
Since coming to the Senate in 2005, Coburn routinely has attacked earmarks, or projects inserted into spending bills by lawmakers to benefit their districts. He recently admitted, however, that he could be vulnerable to criticism for not often targeting earmarks coming to Oklahoma.
"It's not that earmarks themselves are bad; we need an earmark for the Crosstown," he said. "But when we're spending money on pathways and bike paths and museums it's right to be critical of Congress."
The $5 billion in the transportation bill not going for roads or bridges "can fix a lot of bridges," Coburn said.
"The problem's Congress," he said. "A politician's answer to everything is money. It's not accountability or transparency. And we're behind the curve on that on transportation.
"The fact is that we need to have a priority list," he said. "It shouldn't be on how you can look back home or how much money you can get for your state."
Congress could change its attitude if pressured by constituents, he said.
"Washington changes when you all tell it to change," he told the crowd.
"The only way your government's ever going to become accountable is for you to be able to transparently see everything that we do."