Published February 25, 2010
The United States is deep in debt. And while there are many reasons, Washington's lack of self control is certainly one of them.
Each week, Tracking Your Taxes exposes Congressional appropriations most taxpayers consider wasteful but that lawmakers claim are essential. This week we've compiled a list of projects that have received tens of millions of dollars -- and in one case nearly $2 billion -- but never got off the ground.
For perspective, we went back more than a decade to examine some of of the bigger ideas out of Capitol Hill and how much they ultimately cost. Judge for yourself: Did you get your money's worth?
There was the $50 million Congress handed out in 2004 for an indoor rainforest in Iowa at the behest of Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, a self-described fiscal conservative. As the local newspaper in Coralville joked, for that much money, "we could send the whole town on a rainforest vacation."
Tom Schatz, president of the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said the earmark had "no discussion, no vote in the House or Senate -- Grassley just threw it in. The $50 million is not only significant because of the project itself, but because of the size of the earmark.
"The average non-defense earmark is about $1.5-$2 million dollars; this was by far the largest non-defense earmark in that bill."
Like many earmarks, the story behind the story actually explains how something so outlandish came to pass in Congress, a body full of highly educated lawyers. The roots of the appropriation came from a former special assistant to Grassley hired by a politically connected Iowa millionaire. Ultimately, because of a lack of local matching funds, the project died, but only after Washington wasted $4 million in federal money and $17 million in local funds.
Another project that crashed and burned came out of San Diego, Calif., where an entrepreneur convinced another politician he had the idea of a lifetime: a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) troop-carrying airplane. The military didn't want it, but Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., did. Year after year, Washington went along, appropriating more and more million-dollar earmarks. Finally, after 20 years and $63 million taxpayer dollars, the farthest the DP-2 Vectored Thrust Aircraft ever got was two feet off the ground.
Again, the appropriation began after a wealthy local businessman and campaign contributor, the scion of the DuPont family, convinced Hunter in 1988 that he could do what the Pentagon could not: build a combat aircraft capable of carrying 20 soldiers into a battlefield with no airstrip required. He was wrong -- and taxpayers paid the price for yet another Congressional folly.
Another $70 million of taxpayer money was blown on a wind tunnel in Montana. The MARIAH project wasn't requested by the Pentagon or NASA, but Congress funded it for more than a decade, usually with a $7 million earmark requested by the Montana delegation.
"The Air Force, (the) leader in hypersonic testing and technology, lost interest in 2004, so appropriators moved the program to the Army," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.. "The Army has no official requirement for this capability and published a report in 2005 stating their (lack of interest) in the program. To date, the Army has no plans to fund the MARIAH wind tunnel effort, as they have stated in their budget documents. That hasn't kept Congress from pouring more than $70 million into it, with no discernable return."
If a project doesn't make economic sense, how does it survive year after year? The answer often lies in the power of the sponsor, and over the last 50 years there has been no more powerful appropriator than West Virginia Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd. By some accounts, Byrd himself has spent $3 billion dollars in taxpayer money. More than 40 projects in West Virginia that have been paid for with tax dollars are named after him.
From the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam to the Robert C. Byrd Telescope to the Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex, the list goes on and on. But one of his most ambitious projects is "Corridor H," a four-lane highway in his home state that goes, literally, nowhere.
"Corridor H ... has certainly helped (Byrd) retain the title of the 'King of Pork.'" said Schatz, the taxpayer watchdog. "Corridor H has been a boondoggle since the beginning. It's something that is one of these roads to nowhere that ends short of the adjoining state line."
So far, taxpayers have invested almost $2 billion in the massive highway, which ends in a field. Virginia has no plans to ever actually connect a companion highway to West Virginia's 25-mile stretch of concrete, leaving the monster as yet another monument to waste, or one of the more expensive examples of how Congress works.