FORT PIERRE, S.D. — From the scrub and gravel, a building rises here in the shape of a giant eagle — a striking symbol, its creators say, for an American Indian cultural facility and a judicial center.
The center, which would house a judicial system, was estimated to cost $18 million. That number has risen to $25 million.
Except that this eagle has only one wing. Federal money for the other has run dry. And even the one eagle wing, all 30,000 square feet of it, is mainly just a shell, ceilings unfinished and rooms empty, silent but for the buzz of black flies that bite.
This $18 million center, once championed by Tom Daschle, the former South Dakota senator and Senate Democratic leader, was meant to accomplish something unprecedented: lure outside investment to impoverished Indian reservations across the region by creating a court system where outsiders could recoup losses if a business deal went bad.
The effort had drawn praise from bankers’ associations, South Dakota’s bar association, the State Chamber of Commerce, the National Congress of American Indians and the 11 chairmen of the Sioux Nation tribes. But along the way, Mr. Daschle lost his seat in the Senate and annual funds for the half-finished project known as the Wakpa Sica (pronounced WALK-paw SHE-cha) Reconciliation Place have dropped precipitously, leaving some here to wonder what, if anything, will come of the place.
Proponents of Wakpa Sica, named, in Lakota, for the Bad River junction where Sioux leaders met members of the Lewis and Clark party, say theirs is the story of a good idea swept aside in Washington’s abrupt distaste for certain pet projects paid for through budget mechanisms known as earmarks.
In this remote town of 2,000, the people who have been planning the center for more than a decade say they feel unfairly tarnished by anti-earmark sentiment, prompted in part by the scandals surrounding the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Representative Randy Cunningham of California and by proposed projects like the $200 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.
“The thing is, this is anything but a bridge to nowhere,” said Marshall Matz, a lawyer in Washington who is representing the center. “But no one wants to hear that. The Congress seems to feel we are an earmark, and earmarks are very difficult now to get money for.”
The South Dakota center finds itself contending with the risk inherent in every earmark, silly or worthwhile. Its champion, Mr. Daschle, is gone, and with him the money. That is the fate of many earmarked projects with powerful sponsors who move on. Those tied to large companies, which can ensure survival by seeking help from multiple lawmakers, struggle less; little projects in little places risk more.
And even though those in South Dakota’s current Congressional delegation say it is a worthy project, this is hardly a climate in which others are likely to fight for someone else’s earmark.
“This is a cautionary tale,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks such federal spending and describes the earmarks from the 2005 budget as “out of control,” including $1.3 million for Wakpa Sica. “If you had a more objective funding system — not political patronage — the funding would be consistent, and that’s one of the problems with these things. Live by the earmark, die by the earmark.”
Despite new rules brought about by the recent scandals requiring lawmakers to attach their names to their pet projects, Washington has hardly sworn off earmarks. House lawmakers have put together spending bills with nearly 6,500 earmarks worth almost $11 billion, though the budget process is far from done.
But the pace, so far, is significantly slower than in the prescandal days of 2005, when Congress financed more than 15,000 pet projects, by some estimates, totaling more than $30 billion.
In the late 1990s, a group of American Indians and outside civic and academic leaders approached Mr. Daschle about the center here. In a telephone interview from Washington, where he is now a special policy adviser at a law firm, Mr. Daschle recalled that he viewed it as a way to accomplish many things: to tell the history of American Indians and this country in South Dakota; to further reconciliation with the state’s nine tribes; and, perhaps most uniquely, to create a legal model, a court system and a high court that would make non-Indian businesses more comfortable in Indian Country.
Outside investors often fear that the tribes’ independent legal systems and shifting leadership pose too much risk. Ultimately, the new judicial center was intended to encourage economic development — in the form of investment in business and loans for new enterprises — on reservations, where poverty rates are among the worst in the nation.
“You can draw a red line around every reservation in South Dakota and until we have an appellate court, we’re not going to have any economic development on the reservation,” said Clarence Mortenson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the chairman of the board of Wakpa Sica.
In 2000, Mr. Daschle succeeded in getting Congressional authorization for Wakpa Sica as part of a larger Indian Advancement Act, but that did not include money. Mr. Daschle recalled working to convince his colleagues that the legal element of the center could be used by tribes all around the country and that it was not “just some Indian pork” for South Dakota. At the time, Mr. Daschle said, no one “seriously challenged” the project.
In the budget bills that followed, the project (then estimated to cost $18 million, now estimated at closer to $25 million) was granted annual appropriations of at least $1.3 million for a total of nearly $8 million.
But in 2004, after the budget was set for the next year, Mr. Daschle was defeated by John Thune, a Republican and former congressman. In the next budget, Wakpa Sica received $350,000. For the 2007 fiscal year, it got nothing. The 2008 budget process is not completed yet, but the House proposal would give Wakpa Sica $150,000.
As the center has struggled, the very definition of the word earmark has become a matter of intense debate here. The fact that the center received broad Congressional authorization in 2000 — rather than being slipped into a spending bill as part of a deal — makes it unfair to consider it an earmark, Mr. Matz said.
Others, including Mr. Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, vehemently disagree.
“It’s still a line-item provision inserted at the request of a lawmaker,” Mr. Ellis said.
And at least one lawmaker, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, questioned elements of the center itself.
“We don’t need any more cultural centers,” Mr. Coburn said. “We’re fighting a war; why should we be spending any more on a cultural center?”
As the money has faded away, plans here have been scaled back. During a tour, the construction manager, Richard Rangel, spoke of ways to stretch the money — lower-grade carpet and ceiling materials. The grant proposal writer, one of just a handful of staff members at the center, was let go.
Members of South Dakota’s delegation defended and praised the project, but offered little in the way of comfort. After all, they have their own favored projects to fight for. And the demands of Indian tribes, in particular, often run toward more basic needs like keeping emergency rooms, schools and roads open.
A spokesman for Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat and South Dakota’s only member of the House, called the project a “top priority” and pointed to the $150,000 being considered this year as something she had secured.
Kyle Downey, communications director for Mr. Thune, said, “Budgets are tight these days, and earmark reform has made it tough for this project and many others to get finished simply on federal funding.” Mr. Downey added that Mr. Thune helped get authorization for Wakpa Sica during his tenure in the House.
The state’s other senator, Tim Johnson, a Democrat, said the war in Iraq and tax breaks had “drained resources from many important domestic projects, including the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place.”
While work on a judicial system continues, Mr. Daschle said he still hoped there would be a center to house it. He said he recalled being at the ground-breaking ceremony and feeling a rush of momentum and hopefulness.
“It has eroded,” Mr. Daschle said. “The half-eagle is a perfect metaphor for the half-commitment we’re now getting from government.”