Today’s Must Read

April 17, 2008 9:18 a.m.

Relax, defenders of the Constitution! They were only fixing a mistake.

Since last August, we’ve been trying to figure out how Rep. Don Young (R-AK) managed to change the language in a bill after it cleared both houses of Congress. Now we’ve finally got a little bit of clarity — Young’s staff has finally fessed up to making the change. What remains unclear, however, is whether Young told them to do it.

It was no mystery that Young himself was responsible for the earmark, which provided $10 million to build an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road in Lee County, Florida. Local officials had sought money for a more general project to widen the highway, but real estate developer Daniel Aronoff knew the way to get things done. He held a $40,000 fundraiser for Young in Florida.

Why Young? He was the chairman of the House transportation committee back in 2005 and so the man to go to for an earmark that hadn’t managed the support of local officials or lawmakers. It didn’t really matter that Florida was about as far from Alaska in the United States that you can get.

So while it’s been no mystery that Young was responsible for the earmark, just how he managed to buck the constitutional process for lawmaking hasn’t been clear. Back in August, we plowed into the 800-page 2005 bill to see whether there had been any other substantial changes. We found that out of approximately 6,370 earmarks, Young’s had been the only to undergo such a change.

But Young refused to discuss it. Taxpayers for Common Sense filed a complaint with the House ethics committee, and still he remained mum.

Finally, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) was successful in pushing for an investigation of the earmark. The Senate is likely to vote today and pass a measure by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that will refer the matter to the Justice Department for investigation.

And today, after debate raged for hours in the Senate on the best way to investigate Don Young, he’s finally fessing up – sort of.

Young himself didn’t make the change, his staff tells The Washington Post:

Young’s staff acknowledged yesterday that aides “corrected” the earmark just before it went to the White House for President Bush’s signature, specifying that the money would go to a proposed highway interchange project on Interstate 75 near Naples, Fla. Young says the project was entirely worthy of an earmark and he welcomes any inquiry, a spokeswoman said….

Young’s office accepted responsibility yesterday for the change, insisting that campaign contributions were not the motive. Rather, presentations made by Florida Gulf Coast University officials and the developers proved the case for the project, aides said.

[Meredith] Kenny, Young’s spokeswoman, said the lawmaker always intended for the earmark to designate money to the interchange project, not generic highway improvements. So committee aides altered the bill to reflect that after the House and Senate had approved it.

“There was an error in the bill and so it was corrected,” she said.

Now, in our pass through the earmark-laden transportation bill, we did find that plenty of “errors” in the bill had indeed been corrected — by which I mean misplaced commas, typos, etc. But none of those “corrections” changed the projects themselves.

And of course this statement doesn’t answer the big question: whether one of Young’s staffers might have made such a change to the bill without asking the boss. Because (hopefully) it’s not every day at the office that a staffer changes the language of legislation after it passes Congress.

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