Congressional Clout Means Big Bucks for Home

A cornucopia of big-bucks transportation projects is coming to – of all places – the north woods of Minnesota thanks to one influential congressman.

As part of a spiking trend of congressional “earmarks,” legislators are wrapping up a $284 billion transportation bill with more than 4,100 special projects selected by members of Congress themselves.

One of the principal beneficiaries is Rep. Jim Oberstar, the longest-serving House member in Minnesota history and the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

Under a version of the bill passed recently by the House, Oberstar would claim $151.6 million in special projects _ half Minnesota’s total of $302 million in earmarked funds.

It’s the second-largest haul of any member of Congress, after Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska. Young’s district is his entire state.

Oberstar, who represents 12.5 percent of Minnesota’s population and 37.3 percent of its square mileage, says his north woods district has historically been neglected by state transportation planners, and he makes no apologies for his beneficence toward the region, where he was born.

“I think it’s a fair distribution,” he said. “We’ve suffered long being out of the mainstream. We wouldn’t get a (darn) penny if it were up to the state.”

Oberstar stands to land more earmarked money for his district than North and South Dakota combined. Iowa, with $168.5 million in total earmarks, barely gets more.

Some critics say the earmarks represent a political distortion that has made federal road dollars increasingly a spoils system for congressional leaders.

“Simply put, the way Congress distributes transportation money is not fair,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has balked at requesting any earmarks, even though every member of Congress was assured at least $16 million in projects for their districts.

“Congressional districts lucky enough to be represented by a handful of the congressmen who write the bill make out all right, but, ironically, it could come at the expense of the rest of the state.”

Under rules championed by Flake and other critics, the special projects could be subtracted from the state’s overall federal funding for the next six years, which, for Minnesota, is currently $3.45 billion.

Oberstar disputes that decisions made in Washington are any more political than those by state highway officials.

“Members of Congress are not potted plants,” he said. “We represent real people, and they come to us and (complain) when the state doesn’t satisfy their needs.”