Congress is frequently like a self-centered toddler who couldn't care less about the welfare of others. The transportation bill is the best example of that. The bill is two years overdue, billions of dollars higher than the President wanted and loaded with the kind of legislative projects that congressmen love to bring home to constituents at the expense of American taxpayers. Sadly, like a weak parent giving in to a child's temper tantrum, the President gave up what was left of his credibility as a fiscal conservative and signed the bill.
For two years now, the President has spoken about the need to be firm and to impose spending restraints on Congress. The White House repeatedly said he would veto any bill whose cost would exceed $284 billion -- a number that is much larger than the previous highway bill and thus hardly a benchmark of fiscal responsibility. In the end, the bill spends $2 billion above what Bush proposed. But Congress included an $8.5 billion "rescission" of past budget authority, a gimmick that essentially masks the total cost of the bill. Yet even with this flagrant disregard of White House veto threats, President Bush signed the bill.
The President's staff claims that this should be seen as the victory of fiscal conservatism over wasteful spending. Sure, they say, the final number is several $billion too high, but it is more important to focus on how much worse it could have been. Don Young, the Alaskan republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and other members wanted a more expansive $375 billion authorization bill. And this bill is $9 billion less than the Senate-passed version. In other words, the White House claims that it was aiming for restraint, it got it, so who cares about several billion dollars.
The American taxpayers do. They are the ones footing the bill, mainly through an 18.3-cent-per-gallon excise tax on gasoline. Moreover, restraint is nowhere to be seen in this bill. It includes over $24.1 billion for 6,500 earmarked projects across the country that have been sought and won by individual Senators and House members. Politicians always engage in pork-barrel antics rather than allowing funding decisions to be made by the states, but the highway bill sets a new record for greed.
Rep. Don Young, for instance, managed to get the 650,000 people in Alaska over 130 earmarked projects totaling nearly a billion dollars, including a $230 million dollar bridge to nowhere in Alaska which will be known now known as Don Young's Way. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA) secured $600 million for his home district of Bakersfield in California while his state is getting over $2.2 billion.
The Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who did most of the heavy lifting for the bill, did pretty well for himself and especially for his hometown of Aurora, Illinois where the President signed the bill. Aurora is getting at least $7 million worth of pork barrel projects while the state of Illinois will get over $1.2 billion of taxpayers' money, $500 million of which is due to the Speaker's strong-arm tactics.
The redistribution of taxpayer money among the states is based on political pull rather than objective need. Some states get swindled from the federal money-go-round year after year in terms of federal taxes paid versus federal spending received. By comparing taxes paid by residents of each state to data on federal spending by state, you find that states such as Florida and Texas routinely get less than 90 cents on every dollar sent to Washington while Alaska gets more than $5 dollars.
There is nothing like a transportation bill to get congressmen dreaming about their reelection campaign. They immediately imagine themselves standing at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new highway and a new bridge that they've helped secure. Never mind, of course, that these jobs are paid with money taken away from taxpayers who need it to pay for their kids' school tuition, to make a mortgage payment, or to pay a hospital bill.
President Bush has been a big spender in the Lyndon Johnson tradition and he has cemented this unfortunate reputation by signing this transportation bill loaded with wasteful spending and budget gimmicks that hide the true cost from taxpayers.