Highway bill prime example of pork-barrel projects

Freedom Newspapers

It would be almost a shame for President Bush to spend his first presidential veto on a bill filled with typically tawdry pork-barrel projects rather than on some more epic piece of irresponsibility by Congress. But better to use it on a new highway and transit spending bill than never to wield it at all.

Perhaps he’ll get the hang of it and use the veto more often.

The Senate on Tuesday passed the bill, which amounted to an in-your-face challenge to the administration to make good on a threat to veto bills that increase the federal deficit. The White House said $284 billion was the maximum it could agree to, and that’s what the House passed. The Senate added a little sugar all around and passed a bill with $295 billion in spending.

Of course the House bill includes $12 billion for 4,000 “earmark” projects — projects placed in the bill by individual members of Congress that were not initially requested by either the relevant federal department or by state agencies.

That’s the classic definition of pork-barrel projects — those that are important to a particular politician who wants to brag about bringing home the bacon but have little or nothing to do with achieving transportation goals.

Actually, the situation is worse. As Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said, “the administration started by saying it wouldn’t agree to more than $256 billion.” House leaders bid that up to $284 billion, and now the Senate has raised the ante.

Are there any fiscal conservatives in the Senate? An amendment to reduce the bill to the administration’s preferred $284 billion got a paltry 16 votes.

Schatz believes that once a conference committee meets to reconcile the House and Senate versions, the final spending tab won’t be more than $284 billion. He believes House Speaker Dennis Hastert when he says he won’t be able to muster a House majority for more than that.

A more sensible course would be to take note of the fact that the federal interstate highway system is virtually completed and the only legitimate use of federal dollars is to complete and maintain it. Almost all the spending in the current bill is to subsidize state projects. Reducing the federal gas tax (now 18.6 cents a gallon) and returning highway authority to the states would make more sense.

The likelihood of Congress adopting such a sensible course is virtually nil, so President Bush just might get the chance to deploy his first veto. It would be good for his soul — and for taxpayers’ pocketbooks.