‘Kentucky kickback’: Grease vs. gridlock

In the aftermath of the last-minute deal to end the government shutdown, many have focused on one hidden provision in the bill: more than $2.8 billion in funding for a locks-and-dam project on the Ohio River between Kentucky and Illinois. The language — quickly dubbed the “Kentucky kickback” — was inserted into the bill by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. But the project has long been championed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

It’s easy to scoff at the dam-funding provision as another example of pork-barrel spending; McConnell’s Tea Party critics are already howling. On the other hand, McConnell’s constituents, who would benefit from the project, might wind up rewarding him at the polls. Federal outlays for major transportation and infrastructure projects shouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of the political process. But the Kentucky locks-and-dam project was already vetted by the Obama administration, and appears to be worthwhile.

Speeding its approval as part of a bipartisan deal to achieve far more important goals — reopening the government and avoiding a disastrous debt default — may not be in the spirit of good government. It’s typical, though, of the give-and-take that kept Washington working for decades. The dam funding is nothing to be proud of; while a little political grease here and there may be an inevitable part of the legislative process, it’s best kept to a minimum. But at least in this case, the grease may well have helped put the gears of government in motion again.