Does fiscal conservatism stop at the water's edge? It's a question worth pondering because Senator John McCain is a hawk who is also rightly skeptical of too much federal spending.
During his successful bid to capture the Republican nomination for president, McCain regularly railed against Alaska's "bridges to nowhere." Funding for these bridges had been quietly tucked into the 2006 transportation bill by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and would have remained relatively uncontroversial except that anti-pork crusader (and great vice presidential material!) Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn made the bridges exhibits A an B in his case that Washington Just Doesn't Get It.
The bridges would have connected the town of Ketchikan to Gravina Island (home to about 50 people, i.e., nowhere) and given Anchorage residents easier access to the northern wetlands. Initial cost to the federal government? $453 million. Cost for later wetlands bridge expansion? Almost $2 billion. Watching Stevens pitch a fit and threaten to resign from the Senate when Coburn made an issue of it? Priceless.
McCain made an issue of the bridges because he doesn't like earmark spending and because voters could readily agree that this was too much. Here was a pitch perfect example of the federal government literally sinking taxpayer dollars into projects that the state would never dole out for on its own.
It was a symbol of all that is wrong with our out-of-control spending, on everything from pet projects to entitlements to war making.
Hold on, you might say of that last item. That's stealing a base. But is it?
A large number of voters who voted for McCain in the Republican primary were anti-war. According to exit polls, 42 percent of anti-war voters who voted in the New Hampshire Republican primary cast ballots for the Arizona senator. That's an awfully high percentage. They must have been attracted to something in McCain's message.
That something was likely his admirable advocacy of spending restraint. He voted against not only nickel-and-dime (well, billions of nickels and dimes) pork barrel spending but also the expansion of Medicare prescription drug coverage, the most costly domestic piece of legislation that Bush signed into law.
War costs money too. Round the bill for the bridges to nowhere that so incensed McCain up to $500 million. Our occupation of Iraq, which often seems to be getting nowhere, is costing north of $10 billion a month. That sum could finance the construction of 40 superfluous bridges this month and 480 bridges in a year.
We hasten to add that this is not a brief to bring home the troops and rev up road construction per se. Rather, it's a tool readers can use to put these things in perspective.
Pentagon pencil sharpeners insist that if we stay in Iraq long enough with a force of about 130,000 troops they might be able to get costs down to $8 billion a month — or 32 bridges. That figure is too optimistic because it does not include many costs, including lifetime disability payments for thousands of wounded and maimed soldiers. So tack on at least a bridge a month, maybe two.
Most Iraq war hawks insist that this is a price worth paying, though they rarely quantify it. McCain would see those costs and raise them substantially. He would expand the active duty military and has hinted that there are more wars on the horizon, perhaps during his presidency.
All this would cost a lot of money. How much? More than a President McCain could save with a judicious use of his veto pen. Though he claims he can restrain Congress, there are limits to what any president can accomplish. Certain bills simply have to be signed and the senators and representatives can override vetoes, especially if most members' pet pork projects are threatened.
What this means is that there are probably more bridges to nowhere in the future. And that these monuments to legislative hubris will continue to be a good way to measure how much treasure America is willing to give up to salvage something from its long occupation of Iraq.