The Reoriented Express

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There’s a lot of interesting information over at Porkbusters (just keep scrolling) on the $700 million earmark that Trent Lott inserted in an emergency appropriations bill to relocate a stretch of coast-hugging CSX rail track inland (the original AP story describing it is here).

N.Z. Bear links to some photos that Ed Frank of Americans for Prosperity took of a small section of track and the surrounding (Katrina flattened) architecture. And Alasandra Alawine, a local resident, has offered a summary of what she’s gleaned of the project’s history, origins and shortcomings. An opponent of moving the railroad, she also blogs at MS Gulf Coast.

For my part, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to write a sort of diary of the steps I’m taking to find out whether, and if so the extent of the impact, that special interest money has played in this earmark.

First, though. let me offer a few caveats. As often as not, investigative reporting ends in a dry well. Sometimes it’s a case that the information you need eludes you–the government won’t release a document (or will redact the crucial information before releasing it). Sometimes your hunch turns out to be plain wrong–suppose we stipulate that moving these railroad tracks is a bad idea (and I don’t think that’s been established yet) and that paying for them with federal money is an even worse one, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy was bought and paid for. Second, further reporting sometimes reveals that, to stick with the railroad example, moving the tracks may well be a much more defensible idea than you had thought. There may well be solid reasons for doing so — economic, environmental, public safety, and so on. But, to offer the converse, sometimes even good ideas are bought and paid for. It’s hardly a secret in Washington that the surefire way to ensure your issue gets the attention of a member of Congress is to pony up campaign contributions, hire former staffers to lobby for you, fly members around on junkets, and so on.

I don’t quite know what we’ll find, but I think the process will be interesting in and of itself, and I suspect that as we go along, we’ll find that we know now is the tip of an iceberg. One of the smartest investigative reporters I know likens the process to peeling an onion–the layers go on and on. I think we’ll find that here.

So more tomorrow.

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