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Congressional Porkfest 

Redistricting checks and balances

When no one was looking, the bastards put the bridges back.

This summer, the infamous Alaskan bridges to nowhere became national symbols of the largest porkfest in Congressional history. One bridge would link the town of Ketchikan -- population 8,000 and declining -- to Gravina Island, home to the nearby airport and not much else. The official purpose of this $223 million monstrosity was to allow Ketchikaners to drive directly to the airport, sparing them the inconvenience of a 7-minute ferry ride. The unofficial purpose was to get Republican Rep. Don Young, who represents the area, re-elected.

Then there was the $231 million for Knik Arm Bridge, which will connect the city of Anchorage to hundreds of square miles of wetlands, all unpopulated. It will eventually cost taxpayers an estimated $2 billion, the rest of which Young, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will no doubt be back for next year.

After the bridges became a national outrage and editorial pages began calling for Congressional heads to roll, the bridges were yanked from the budget. Congress had been forced to take "a legislative wrecking ball" to the pork-laden highway bill, the New York Times gleefully reported.

But what few people realized as the controversy died down was that while the bridges were "removed" from the budget, it was in name only. The $454 million that was supposed to pay for them was retained in the budget as a blank check to Alaska, so that the state could still use it to build the bridges.

The media largely fell for the ruse, which wasn't widely reported except in Alaskan newspapers and the pages of the National Review.

Just a decade ago, many of the same Republicans who now hold leadership positions used the Democrats' out-of-control pork barrel spending against them to capture control of Congress. When they took office in 1995, the number of earmarks, or special spending projects inserted into the federal budget, was 1,400. Last year there were 14,000.

To those who aren't political numbers junkies, this kind of spending might seem like a huge political risk. Given the initial outrage over bridges, leaving the $454 million for them in the budget could have seemed foolish. If the national media had figured out it was tricked, the backlash could have been even worse for the Republicans the second time around. Yet, the pull of pork on the Republican leadership was so powerful that they couldn't bear to part with even one utterly senseless, wasteful allocation.

Why have they gotten so sloppy? The answer is because they can and they know it.

Bush's approval numbers are bad, and Congress' are even worse. But what few people -- including the media and the punditry -- seem to understand is that polls and approval numbers don't mean a damn thing. Public sentiment and what voters do in the voting booth will have little or no bearing on who winds up controlling Congress after this fall's elections.

Congressional district maps have been rigged to produce a predetermined outcome for about a decade now, and they are drawn to elect Republicans. Rapid technological advances that can break census data down to the household level have made creating biased congressional maps an exact science. If there are enough Democrat voters in a district to make it competitive, map drawers simply dump them in another district that is already Democratic by redrawing district lines.

The Democrats did it to the Republicans for decades, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s the national GOP mounted a strategic campaign to take control of state legislatures, which in most states draw congressional district maps. Today, of the 435 seats in Congress, political number crunchers estimate that only between 20 and 30 are truly competitive, the lowest number in 50 years. For Democrats, that makes picking up the 12 seats they need to retake the House darned near impossible, especially when you consider that they'd need to hold on to every one of their 13 vulnerable seats to do it.

But there's a catch. Votes cast in the voting booth may not count for much any more, but those cast by US Supreme Court Justices still do. Right now, there is a case before the court that will have more influence on who controls Congress than all of the votes that will be cast this fall combined.

A congressional map drawn by the Texas legislature after Republicans took control of both houses in 2003 shifted the Texas delegation to the House from a 17-15 Democratic majority to a 21-11 Republican majority, which made up for Congressional seats Republicans had lost or forfeited in other states.

When the court rules in July, it could throw out the whole map, or it could throw out parts. In the process, it will also rule on factors that affect how maps are drawn. In the space of a few hours, the court could dramatically alter the American political landscape. Or it could give Democrats just enough of a margin to pick up a few more seats, narrowing the GOP grip on the House to just a few votes, which would significantly diminish the party's power.

If that happens, we can expect to wake up the next morning to a whole new pork-slashing, port-protecting, small-government loving GOP.

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